NPC17-Reflection

The National Principals Conference in Philly came at the perfect time for me. I recently completed my certification as a superintendent and had been trying to find a central office job. Unsuccesfully. I felt like I wasn’t good enough as I was passed over for two positions and not even considered for several others. Maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought I was.

At the last minute I decided to attend NPC 17. Mainly because it was close to home and also because I felt like I needed a break from the office. I was beyond surprised by how inspirational the three days were. Over the passed few years I had focused on technology conferences – PETE and C and ISTE. Turns out what I needed was a kick in the pants from my tribe. Most everyone in every room was a principal. WE all had some semblance of what was going on in each others’ lives. Many connections were instantaneous. No one had to warm up to other people because we were all in the same boat.

In my professional life I have moved around a good bit. First between teaching jobs and then pushing up the administrative ladder. I always felt as though I had made the decision to move on because I had given all that I had. NPC17 in many ways proved my thoughts to be incorrect. Upon reflection it seems that I was leaving those positions because I was scared. Not fearful necessarily but scared to push the envelope a little bit more. There are great leaders out there doing amazing things. I wasn’t and still am not being truly amazing for my people.

When I was reflecting on my admin career while in Philly I remembered all the great ideas that I had when I started as an assistant principal. I made some pretty amazing connections with parents, students and staff. Even when I became a principal I was full of passion. I wanted to do this right and impact my community. Recently I have allowed myself to be content. To be lazy. To stop pushing the envelope.

That ends this year. People are probably going to think I went around the bend. It’s going to be tough to make a pretty big change after being the same guy for eight years but it must be done. I need to bring the passion back for myself but more importantly I owe it to my students, my teachers and my community.

Thank you to everyone who attended NPC 17. I was inspired greatly by so many that I won’t even try to list.

Disruption and Capitalization

Recently I began listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist HistoryI’m a little late to the game so I started at the beginning of season 1 and am trying to catch up. Yesterday I listened to two episodes that are part of a three part series on the cost of post secondary education and how poorer Americans fit into the past secondary puzzle: “Carlos Doesn’t Remember” and “Food Fight.” I’ve always enjoyed the way Gladwell thinks so I would highly recommend the podcast.

These two episodes got me thinking about how we serve our students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Gladwell talks about two concepts that I felt were relevant to the public education, K-12 story as well as to the post secondary story. The first concept is that of disruption. We all experience disruption in our lives – divorce, loss of a loved one, loss of employment, etc. In many families those disruptions can be on a grander scale- arrests, imprisonment, abuse, etc. The argument that Gladwell makes is that students of privilege not only have fewer disruptions on the grand scale but, even when they do, they are more likely to escape the disruption without issue. For example, a rich, suburbanite student gets pulled over for speeding is found to be DUI. His chances of avoiding punishment are much better than the same student who does not come from privilege. Privilege allows for better attorneys, privilege affords a possible connection in the police force, privileges can be used to ‘buy’ your way out of trouble. The poorer student has little of this ‘buying’ power. Disadvantaged students who experience these disruptions, especially the high end ones, often are pushed to the breaking point. Their lives are already so tenuous that one major disruption sends everything into a tailspin. Foster care, single parent families, homelessness can all be a reality for a student born into poverty from just one massive disruption.

The second concept is that of capitalization. Gladwell defines capitalization as “the rate at which a given community capitalizes on the human potential… what percentage of those who are capable of achieving something actually achieve it.” Gladwell’s focus here is on how well our society does in recognizing talented students from poor communities and assuring that those students have the post secondary opportunities that more privileged students have. Eric Eisner who founded YES Scholars makes an eerie point about capitalization in the episode ‘Carlos Doesn’t Remember.’ To paraphrase, he says that we are waiting too long to identify these students. If we are waiting to see how they do on their SATs, we are waiting to long. Why? For most of these students, the junior year in high school never comes. Many will drop out, many will join gangs and for some the disruptions will just be to great by the time they hit the eighth grade. Let that sink in. When was the last time you sat in your elementary or middle school classroom and worried that a student wouldn’t make it to ninth grade? The answer to that question will determine where your school sits on the continuum of privilege in this country.

So what can we do as K-12 schools to assure that our students overcome disruption and that our communities experience a high percentage of capitalization? The first answer, I believe, comes in the culture of our schools. I mean this on a national as well as a state and local scale. Are we as a nation, a state and a community focusing so much on passing a high stakes test that we have ignored the disruptions in our students lives? Funding over the past few years in Pennsylvania, my state, has been cut in many areas of human services. Can we build a culture that genuinely cares about students when our country and our state has deprioritized human services? I’ve written before about grit, bootstrapping and growth mindset. All of those things need to overcome a certain measure of disruption. As schools we need to be cognizant of the disruptions in our students’ lives and fill that into the equation whenever we speak to or about them. That would be a good start.

To better capitalize on the human potential of our schools we must start with creating a culture that nurtures students through the disruptions in their lives. We also need to do a better job of identifying our best and brightest despite the backgrounds that they hail from. We know that students in poorer households come to school with fewer skills but we also know that with a solid education many of these students catch up to their peers eventually. There are two things I believe that we don’t address efficiently. First, students who come to us from lower socieconomic backgrounds have there abilities masked by the language poor environments that they were raised in. We don’t acknowledge their gifts early enough because we make assumptions about their intelligence relative to their zip code. Second, even though we see underprivileged students gain on their more privileged peers, we also see that gap begin to widen again as the move into middle school. Students who were average or better elementary students tend to become low average or worse students when the do not come from privilege. Even in a small school where most if not all of the students will eventually graduate, the disruptions become too great for many of these students to maintain their academic achievement.

I don’t have the answers to these questions but I think being cognizant that they exist is an important step. As educational leaders we need to open the eyes of those we lead to these potential pitfalls. Brendon Burchard has this short prayer that I believe speaks to the needs of leaders in our society: “Grant me the strength to focus this week, to be mindful, to serve with excellence, to be a force of love.” Yes, let us be a force of love in education.

LMGTFY

Ran upon this site today when someone replied to a question on Facebook with a link to the site. I instantly fell in love with the site because of its sarcastic notion. Then my head spun in a different direction and I pondered how LMGTFY reflects the changes that are necessary in education. BTW, if you haven’t figured it out yet, check the link.

I get a little tired of rehashing the same old arguments about how education needs to change to better serve our youth. The 21st century competencies have been talked about now for almost two decades and in many arenas – dare I say most? – we are no further along at assuring that our students are creators, critical thinkers, communicators and collaborators than we were in 1999. In 1999 not many people were walking around with a microcomputer in their pockets.

You remember 1999. We were worried about Y2K, TLC was averring that they wanted no scrubs, President Bartlet was ruling The West Wing and The Phantom Menace was crushing the box office. Yes, that’s Episode 1. Schools that were progressive were buying the first iMac and the rest of us were pounding away on 120 MHz Pentium processors and storing our data on the Jaz Drive. I had a phone, like many in my generation, but it was too expensive to use it. More of a status symbol than a useful tool.

You may have taken your class to the lab then whereas now you may have some computers in your classroom. If your district is really pushing the envelope you may even be 1:1. Google was around then but you were probably using Yahoo! or Ask Jeeves.  Those microcomputers in everyone’s pockets? Until a few short years ago no teacher in their right mind would allow a student to use it in class and their are still some feet draggers out there. I’m guessing that was the same attitude at the advent of the calculator. Times have changed and we must embrace the new horizons that are attainable when we don’t have to worry about teaching Googleable content – yes, that’s a word!

Of course the turn of the century also saw the dawn of the No Child Left Behind Act,which ironically left a hell of a lot of children behind probably an entire generation, and the emergence of ‘teaching to the test.’ A sad time for educators that were trying to use emergent technologies and teach soft skills. A time that while technology grew exponentially, teaching muddled on in the same format.

The key point that I want to make is this:  Are you really doing anything differently than you did in 1999? Are you asking students to create with those shiny new Chromebooks? Have you allowed your students to expand their audiences by sharing content and collaborating outside of the classroom? When was the last time your students communicated with an expert or another student that is on the other side of the world or across town without leaving the building? Do your students know how to analyze ‘fake news’ – the bane of 21st century social media? If you are not, if they do not, you may as well invest in more pencils.

Instead of having students memorize states and capitals have them videochat with a peer in that state and ask them questions? Instead of asking students the significance of color in The Great Gatsby ask them to collaborate with a partner to brainstorm a conversation that they might have with Gatsby and Eliza. Instead of writing definitions to vocabulary words teach students how to use Google – like that don’t already know that – to look up unknown words that they come upon in their reading. Encourage debate over current events so that students learn to think critically rather than have them summarize an article to hand in. These are just a few easy options. By eliminating Googleable content we open up our students’ worlds to more STEM activities, Makerspaces, project based learning activities, the list could go on and on. In the process we will make them more confident people, more independent learners, more concerned citizens and more active contributors to society.

If you have any questions, let me Google that for you.

 

Thank You, Corey

I attended a funeral today. Tough one to say the least. A young man gone at the age of 21. Sadness can not even begin to describe it. His family, his friends, his brothers were crushed.

I didn’t know Corey well. He was a friend of my daughter’s. I knew him as a high school athlete and had seen him around the gym after he graduated. He was a close friend of my daughter but more so after the ‘driving’ days when you begin to see your own kids less and less.

Today I felt like I had missed a tremendous opportunity to get to know a true, genuine human being a little better. Today, Corey’s life taught me a few things. Today I cried for his hurting family and his tight group of friends and brothers but I knew in my heart that Corey taught us all something today.

Today Corey reminded me to live my life to the fullest. To hear people talk about him, to read the newspaper articles and social media posts, for a 21 year old, this guy lived a very full life. Fraternity life, college student, hunter, mudder, cross fitter, charity work, school groups. Just an amazing life all the way around. Thanks for the lesson.

Not only did Corey participate in life, he apparently did it with drive, passion and zeal. The things he loved he pursued to the greatest of his ability. Shy guy – becomes officer in a college club. Grow up in a rural, white school – joins a fraternity that is primarily composed of black students. Want to get fit – starts crossfitting and not only excels but teach others the sport. Tired of running slow – runs in a weighted jacket to get faster. Go to college – crushes the dean’s list. This guy not only had strong passion, he had to have strong mental and intestinal fortitude. Today Corey reminded me to be more passionate and and don’t shy away from a challenge.

Corey doesn’t know it but over the last year he was preparing to give us the best gift of all. Today in rural, central Pennsylvania three young black men stood up and spoke of Corey like a brother. In fact he was their brother. Brothers of Phi Beta Sigma. They reminded us all of what a great guy he was. How he truly was a brother to them. How he lifted them up and how he challenged them to be better people.

I don’t usually have the habit of describing people by the color of their skin but in this context it is important. There’s an old political saying describing Pennsylvania as Pittsburgh on the west, Philly on the east and everything in between is Alabama. These three gentlemen were sitting smack dab in the middle of Alabama and connecting with people of every color, age, and background like no one else possibly could. I began to think that Corey had a grand plan and was looking down smiling about his two worlds colliding and sitting together in his honor. It wasn’t long but it was a powerful sight, an overwhelming feeling.

Thank you, Corey, for that one last gift.

Dear Olivia

Dear Olivia,

You are my one of a kind. When I think of the things you have endured, it makes me proud that you have overcome everything to be a very unique individual. I know that because of your struggles you will be a strong adult.

Mentally, emotionally, physically I don’t know that there is a person in the world that is more like me. That comes with its consequences and its rewards. Some of those you will learn on your own. Since I see a lot of me in you, I wanted to share some things that I would tell my 18 year old self:

  1. Don’t be afraid to fail. It sounds like a cliché but it is very true. Trying things that you are not good at enriches your life in countless ways. It makes your brain grow, it makes you more confident, and it increases your ability to handle setbacks and frustration.
  2. Be yourself. I’m still learning this and you could probably teach me a few things in this area. Swim against the current with confidence that you know where you are going.
  3. Believe in your power to figure things out. I think this is where public education fails us as adults. No one ever expects us to think through problems so we never gain that ability. As I have gotten older I have learned a lot by making the decision that I am going to figure things out on my own.
  4. Bring the Joy! I have to be reminded to do this at times. Being happy is a conscience choice that we have to make every day. Sometimes it is easy and sometimes it is not. It is possible not only to be happy but also to spread happiness every day.
  5. Tip generously! Nothing says more about your character than the way you treat people when you have nothing to gain.
  6. Possibilities are everywhere! Your life from now on is all about possibilities. Anything is possible if you aren’t afraid to go after it.
  7. Relationships are everything! Good, true relationships are what connects the world. Not just close relationships but positive connections that you make can make the difference in achieving your dreams.

Today marks the beginning of your future. Grab onto it with both hands and don’t let go. While there will be tears today, know that this is a stepping stone in your life to bigger and better things. I know that you have a ton of untapped potential. I have seen you grow incredibly in the last couple of years but I truly believe that you have inside you great possibilities.

In the years to come you will become a more independent woman. You will begin to need me less and less. That is what I hope for. That is what I want for you. You are a strong, independent person who will fly as far as she sees fit. Remember that but also always remember that your dad is only a phone call away.

Love,

Dad

 

“When we walk to the edge of all the light we have and take a step into the darkness of the unknown, we must believe that one of two things will happen. There will be something solid for us to stand on or we will be taught to fly.”
― Patrick Overton

Pennsylvania’s Hunger Games

My younger daughter this week announced that her final project for English 12 is a research paper. For their research, they have to utilize a novel that they read in class this year. Her chosen title is Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Brave New World was dystopian literature before dystopian literature was the realm of young adult literature. My thoughts went to a comparison and contrast of BNW with one of this generation’s dystopian trilogies: Divergent, The Hunger Games, or The Maze Runner.

 

I’m not going to write her paper for her but I was interested in finding some thematic connections. I was especially interested in the theme of social class in these novels and how they might have changed to reflect the political scene of the times. The same thing kept coming back to me as I read about the Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons of BNW, the 13 Districts of The Hunger Games, The five Factions of Divergent, The Inner Party, The Outer Party and the Proles of 1984: This reminds me of education funding in Pennsylvania.

 

I’ve written on this topic before. The injustice created in education exists throughout the world but the 500 districts of Pennsylvania provide a microcosmic glance at what occurs worldwide. I read a couple of pieces this week that brought that notion to light. The first was from Downingtown School District’s technology department: “Downingtown First in Nation to go 1:1:1.” The gist of the article is that every student will have an electronic device for every class. From Kindles for English and iPads for math to Fitbits for PE and Android phones for World Languages. Sounds awesome! The other piece was actually cited by many members of the Pennsylvania House: “Wolf Angers GOP with Funding Formula that Gives Smaller Hikes to Most School Districts“. The linked article is specifically about Lehigh Valley schools but you can find similar articles in newspapers across the State. GOP lawmakers, in general, are upset that the schools that need the money to offset current inequalities, are receiving more money than other districts in the state. The three big winners are Philadelphia and Pittsburgh City Schools and the Chester Upland School District. Chester Upland is the school district whose teachers famously started the year without being paid because of the dire straits of the District’s finances. Being a winner in this case is more like a consolation prize.

 

For this analysis let’s just say that Downingtown is District 1 of The Hunger Games and Chester Upland is District 12. District 1 is the wealthiest of the 13 Districts where they reportedly have a device that turns graphite into diamonds.  Downingtown, while not the richest school in  the state based on aid ratio, is benefitting from a new amusement park that will soon move them up the ladder. An aid ratio of .35 puts them at the number 65 spot of the richest schools in PA.  District 12’s chief function is coal mining and is the poorest of the District’s. In the Hunger Games District 12 historically has no chance of winning the Games. They view the tributes as a sacrifice of their children. Chester Upland is the 4th poorest school district in the state based on aid ration at .85. At Chester Upland being economically disadvantaged is the norm with 82% of the student population falling into that category. Downingtown, on the other hand, has fewer than 1 in 10 students who are living at that economic level. http://paschoolperformance.org/Profile/93 http://paschoolperformance.org/Profile/135

 

To make this characterization even harder to swallow, the cuts of 2011-12, hit the poorer districts harder than the richer districts. Districts in the bottom quartile, the poorest 125 school districts, saw an average cut of almost $1300. The top quartile, on the other hand, saw an average increase of about $125 per student. Yes, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. The median household income in District 1 was $40,000. District 12 maxed out just over $70000. Katniss and Peeta have no chance to catch up. 

 

The mindset of the legislator seems to be that some children deserve more than other children. And let’s remember, that’s what we are talking about: children. Children who didn’t make the decision about where they live. Children who didn’t make a choice to be poor. Does every child in our state deserve the same chance to succeed? Does every student in this state deserve to be prepared for the 21st Century? How can we in good conscience continue to support the concept of the haves and the have nots?

 

A fair funding formula is necessary to support our children. An equalization of opportunity is vital to the future of our children. Katniss and Peeta with the help of Haymitch rose above the richer Districts to become champions but even in their triumph they were unable to break the chain of poverty in District 12. No amount of grit is going to save Chester Upland. A few may get out and break the chain for their families but many will continue to repeat the cycle of poverty for another generation. We definitely need a Brave New something. A Brave New approach to funding would be a godsend for many of our children.
Until then, May the odds be ever in your favor.

Yes, Sometimes Football is Nerdy!

I subscribe to the FiveThirtyEight newsletter. For those of you unfamiliar with 538 it is a website about numbers. Generally polling numbers but also general and advanced statistics that founder Nate Silver and his team use to make predictions. They predict just about anything from politics to sports.They make unbiased calls on who is leading political races and pick the winners of just about every pro and major college game. They do all of this using math. Kind of nerdy but cool.

 

After the Green Bay Packers lost to the Arizona Cardinals last weekend, Benjamin Morris, a sportswriter for 538, wrote that the Packers didn’t understand middle school mathematics. Morris’ assertion was that an understanding of middle school math would have led Mike McCarthy to attempt the two point conversion for the win rather than kick the extra point and go to OT.

Now anyone who watched this game would say it was one of the most exciting fourth quarters in NFL history. Down by a touchdown with virtually no time on the clock, Aaron Rodgers hurled an unbelievable ball into the end zone that was inexplicably caught by Jeff Janis for the game tying TD. Or should it have been the game winning TD.

 

According to Morris’ middle school math, the two point conversion was the mathematically correct call. On his stat sheet it, in the last 15 seasons the two point conversion is made on 47.2 percent of attempts. Not necessarily the greatest of odds. Anyone who has ever gambled would take those odds but not when the game is on the line. Everyone who has ever watched the NFL knows that. What everyone probably doesn’t know are the next two stats: 1. Since the NFL moved the extra point attempt back, NFL kickers have had a 94.3 percent success rate and 2. In the last 15 seasons, the visiting team, which in this case was the Pack, has won only 45.5 percent of the time. OK, so 1.7 percent isn’t that big of a deal but that’s not the end of this math lesson. The Packers needed to make the extra point (94.3%) AND win (45.2%). If you multiply the two of those together you get 42.9%; the percentage chance that Green Bay would win by kicking the extra point. Almost 5% worse than going for two.

 

Why did I spend all this time having that little discussion? Because I wonder how often we do this in real life. Had McCarthy gone for two and missed the fans, ESPN, everyone would have questioned him. How many times in our lives do we do what everyone expects us to do? How often do we play it safe instead of taking a chance? How often do we question the prevailing wisdom or the unwritten rules?

 

I know that as an educator people cringe when you talk about analyzing the data. This is a real world application of using data. The common consensus is that we teach these things because we have always taught these things. Kids need to know these things. The point that kids need to know these things is not what I’m arguing. What I am saying is that by not using the data we are ‘teaching’ things that students already know. By not analyzing what students need to know, we are doing them a disservice in the long run.

 

The obvious question then is how do we prepare students for jobs when the market is changing all the time. The simple answer is we start to teach them the skills that have the greatest percentage of possibility to be needed in the future: critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration.

 

Technology is notably absent from this list because it is a subset of all four. Teaching students to collaborate using technology is far more important than teaching them technology in a vacuum. Our students are digital natives. They understand the technology as a user better than we do. They may not know how or why it works but they know how to access the world through it. Knowing how a car works doesn’t necessarily make you a better driver. Knowing how to put data into a spreadsheet is important for some professions but it’s not the technology that leads us to be better communicators, critical thinkers, creators, or collaborators.