School Reform: A Family Affair

“I went to school here myself. So did my nieces, my brothers, my sisters, and now my daughter. I don’t see why it has to change,” said Seleta Carter, a mother in the Newark, New Jersey Public Schools. Her daughter’s school was scheduled for closing. A mere 20 percent of students read at grade level. The building required urgent repairs to meet minimum safety standards. Officials promised Seleta and fellow parents a better education for their children at another school. Why not embrace the opportunity? Who would choose to stay in a failing school?

I just finished reading Dale Russakoff’s new book, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools, a spellbinding account of a well-intentioned reform of the dysfunctional Newark Public Schools. Mark Zuckerberg and partners pledged 200 million dollars to help Newark children receive the educational opportunities they deserved. Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie committed their political capital to the quest. An epic tale of turmoil ensued. Power grabs, money grabs, lies and rumors formed subplots. Reform failed. Newark struggles today with the aftermath, the money spent, the old ways renewed. Zuckerberg moved on much the wiser. Today Mark and his wife are investing 124 million dollars into San Francisco Bay urban schools. The top-down model is reversed to a bottom-up. The money is only released school by school as neighborhood consensus is reached. I applaud their commitment after the disaster in Newark.

Don’t be quick to judge Seleta Carter for resisting change. She cares about her daughter. Indeed, Ms. Carter knows every teacher. She actively participates in the parents association. As John Stoehr, Yale University professor, rightly points out, “When you don’t have much in life, your margin of error is thin.” Seleta Carter preferred to maneuver with a dysfunction she knew than a dysfunction she didn’t. Indeed, she could not imagine a system that collectively worked. Seleta knew who the gangbangers were in her neighborhood. She knew which teachers to avoid and which teachers to pursue. Seleta can protect her daughter. How does she protect her child at a school she doesn’t know? Seleta Carter no longer seems irrational, uncaring, or naive does she?

Seleta Carter instructs all of us. Change is rarely easy. Reformers may have clear eyes and pure hearts but that is not enough. All parties need to be heard. We must earn trust and then we must deliver a better service. Howard Fuller, former Milwaukee Superintendent of Schools, said of the Newark reforms, “I think a lot of us education reformers – and I include myself – have been too arrogant. It’s not even what you do sometimes, it’s the way you treat people in the process of doing it. If your approach is to get a lot of smart people in the room and figure out what ‘these people’ need and then we implement it, the first issue is who decided that you were smart? And why do you think you can just get in a room and make decisions for a community of people? You don’t think they’ll respond the way they responded? I’m not saying you can ever create this level of change without resistance, but I don’t see how this is politically sustainable over time.” I say, amen.

So where did the 200 million dollar go in Newark? At least 90 million went to the Teachers Union to get them onboard. Joe Del Grasso, head of the union said, “We had an opportunity to get Zuckerberg’s money. Otherwise it would go to the charter schools. I decided I shouldn’t feed and clothe the enemy.” Charter schools received almost 58 million dollars. This investment created a 60 million dollar drop in public school revenues. Another 21 million dollars landed  in the pockets of consultants. The remainder managed to find their way to specific projects. Far too little of the money found its way to the classrooms.

Schools never stand in isolation. We serve the intertwined needs of children and communities. Montello is not Newark but we share most of the structural dynamics of community. Princess Fils Aime, a reform-minded educator in Newark, said, “Finding a way to connect these worlds is my focus now so that we can ask every school: What does this particular school need in order to meet the challenges of the neighborhood it’s situated in? We have to be able to show children: Why is this education meaningful?” Everyone has a right to answers to these questions. Every change should move the ball forward. How do we get better? How do we galvanize a team effort to best serve our children? My experience tells me this: be patient, be respectful, be faithful, fight for essential principles, and compromise on the non essentials. Take the time to understand the Seleta Carters who may resist change. Never shut the door. They are family.


Educating With a Whole Heart

A father propped against a windswept beach sand dune labors to breathe under fogged moonlight. His young son presses hard against him to stay warm. The man is dying. A world obliterated by nuclear holocaust, they have each other, alone on the shore of a lifeless ocean. The father fears for his boy. Prospects of survival vacillate between slim and none. Can goodness yet exist in this ghoulish hell? Will goodness find his little boy? The father whispers, “You have my whole heart. You always did.” Cormac McCarthy calls his apocalyptic novel The Road, a love letter to his son. The scene above instructs our love. Love presses demands upon our thoughts and actions.

The job of a school administrator is not easy when done right. The love of an administrator pains his own heart when lived right. What is right and what is wrong? A wise man sets his compass before the journey. I serve a rural community. Small family businesses pepper our lake pocked wooded county. Commuters sacrifice an hour’s drive to Madison, Wisconsin. The public school system of Montello is the second largest employer in the area. Honorable men and women covet these positions. Their work ensures food on the table and puts flesh to hopes and dreams. By definition we serve two constituencies, adults and children. The perceived needs of these parties conflict more than one might think. How can we best honor adults without compromising our mission to children?

America spends 550 billion dollars per year on public elementary and secondary education. We invest on average $10,658 per pupil each year. And guess what? We need more. Thomas Sowell said, “The first lesson of economics is scarcity:  there is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.” When local schools become a target of economic convenience, school leadership must police itself. We must prepare to say no to adult stakeholders when the school mission is compromised. Every public dollar marinates with the sweat of someone’s brow. We cannot view revenues, grants, and windfalls as easy money, or worse, our money. Our fiduciary mandate compels us to choose our staff, our vendors, and our partners wisely without consideration for political expedience. America’s 550 billion dollar investment screams one paramount truth, our children are America’s greatest asset.

School leaders, never forget your mission, Remember the words of the father to his son? “You have my whole heart. You always did.” It’s all about the kids. Period. Some mission statements say it better than others but our kids deserve our whole heart. Every item of every action plan must answer this question, how does this advance the cause of our children? Every fiduciary decision must embrace our children’s best interests. School funding changed markedly under the state’s Walker administration. We feel the keen edge of local obligation to our schools. An upcoming referendum will define our public school investment and how we nurture it.

Dr. Feuerstein, the eminent cognitive psychologist, said of students, “You don’t impose on them because you want them to be like you. You impose on them because you love them.” What parent doesn’t dream about their child’s future? Who among us doesn’t wish a better life for our kids? Of course we do. The classroom affords a vehicle for those dreams and aspirations like none other. Gender, race, creed, and status bow to equity of opportunity, the embrace of full humanity. Yes, we teach about the physical world, the world of ideas, the world of possibilities. Our children master skills to seize the power of choice as adults. That knowledge, that ability to think, that drive to create is vital. Its importance cannot be overemphasized. But love generates committed interconnections in the learning community. Feuerstein put it this way, “I want people to be dependent on the others, to be related to the others, to help the others, and to be helped by others.” Citizens, parents, students, and staff:  we are a community. We are related to each other and we share a common purpose, to love our children with a whole heart.

Thinking Skills Matter

I obsess about the learning dynamic. My journey covers the seven seas of learning theory, testimonials, conventions, seminars, and exhaustive training under recognized gurus. I separate meat from bones in my field. Believe me, there are too many bones. But why do I continue the pursuit? How can I cast off broken promises and false hope? I know the power of a teacher to affect someone’s life. I know the power of an administrator to compound that potential exponentially.

Dr. Adam Falk, president of Williams College, addressed potential incoming freshmen in the spring of 2015. He highlighted a central theme. “We are not here to create vessels of information. We are here to develop your minds. Exercise and reinforce the habits of mind. Think, feel, analyze – let your mind express itself. Strengthen the higher capacities.” Williams College is no joke. These eighteen year-olds are the academic cream of high schools around the world. Dr. Falk implies a reality these kids may not fully comprehend. Your critical thinking skills, highly developed for a high school senior, must be honed and elevated, indeed these skills can and will be elevated during your four years at Williams College. Teachers will encourage, push, and prod to make it happen.

Dr. Nate Kornell, a cognitive psychologist and professor at Williams College, amplifies this reality in his blog piece, Stop Worrying About Starting Grad School.

“The bottom line: your knowledge and skills on the first day are almost irrelevant four years later. What matters more is how much your skills are going to improve. That depends on your talent, attitude, and work ethic.

Graduate school is exactly the same. You aren’t prepared. No one is. You’re a flailing newborn spitting up all over and crying a lot (or at least I was).

What actually matters is whether you’re smart, ready to work hard, ready to get deeply interested and invested in whatever’s coming, and ready to do what you have to do to learn and improve.

You are running a marathon. The real question is how much better are you prepared to get?”

The learning dynamic demands more and more of our critical thinking skills. Those skills develop our inherent talent. Kornell said it best, “How much better are you prepared to get?”

If development of “the higher capacities” is critical at the college and graduate level, how important are they at the K-12 level? A cursory study of demographics and economics screams, “Life will not end well for those who cannot think for themselves and determine their futures.” Of those who don’t graduate from high school, only a smattering of outliers rise to productive careers. For better, for worse, we affect the lives of children. That is a fact and a choice.

We know for a fact, thinking skills taught and reinforced increases student achievement. Further, we know we have capacity to push IQ up as much as five points over the ages of six to ten. Trust me, five points of talent can make a significant difference in choices for an emerging adult. Men, would you rather have a 12 volt cordless drill or an 18 volt? Why the 18 volt? The 18 volt cordless drill has more power and greater endurance. That drill solves a greater range of problems. The mind is no different. Greater capacity, greater efficiency enhances skills which apply themselves to a greater range of problems. In sum, we possess the power to adapt and learn.

The newborn baby flails helplessly, its cry the only tool to express its needs and desires. Mom and Dad mediate a new relationship. We call it bonding but we are our baby’s first teachers. That developing mind will be nurtured by many others. Cognitive development builds biologically and environmentally, an inevitable exponential march toward independence. In the world, we call it life. In the classroom, we call it mediation. The teacher plays a dominant role at the K-12 level, a dominant but lesser role at the collegiate level, and a peer coach role at the graduate level. Greater and greater self-teaching occurs as the student progresses. His/her habits of mind, his/her powers of critical thinking, enable the individual to shape their environment. He/she emerges a fully functioning adult.

My three sons flew from the nest a decade ago. My first grandchild greets us in June. It matters little to me or you what they do for a living. Here is the critical point of their journey, the hard earned fruits of collaborative labors in their lives. Each works at a profession they chose for themselves. Each of them loves and is loved with dignity, and each invests in the welfare of others outside of family. Isn’t this what we are really about? Aren’t we a part of the universal question posited in each individual, “Who am I?” Don’t we have a responsibility to elevate the life of each child we intersect? I obsess about learning, about teaching, about caring for children because it matters more than any one person can ever comprehend.



Are We Relevant?

With every pedagogical and strategic decision we make at Butler University, we must ask ourselves a crucial question:  “What will the future of learning look like?”

James M. Danko, President Butler University

Yesterday I pulled the quarterly Butler Magazine from my mailbox.  I dumped the bills and junk mail on my desk and sauntered toward a comfy canvas patio chair on the deck, the Butler Magazine in tow.  Let me be completely honest, the Butler Magazine doesn’t often stir me with excitement, but this spring edition was completely different.  The full cover depicted Butler’s new brand, The Future of Learning, Choosing the Right Path.  I turned the cover to read the president’s letter.  James Danko began his message with the quote above.  Let me ask you the same question:  “What will the future of learning look like?”

The Butler College of Education’s vision statement begins with these words, “We must prepare students for schools as they should be, not simply perpetuating schools as they currently exist.”  Schools as they should be?  Please don’t focus on a specific model but rather imagine this as a relentless pursuit of truth, relevance, and application – each day a new justification for its existence, a new opportunity for growth.  The fundamental context of this complex confluence called learning is always the student, our learner.  Who are these individuals?  What does the world demand of them in 2015?  Who do our students aspire to be?  The art of my job as an administrator presents exciting challenges.  Educators get to raise the curtain to a phenomenal world.  We want them to experience this world with all of their senses.  This world must be relevant; each student has a birthright to interact, each according to his curiosity, each according to their discovered passions.  Teachers are not primarily dispensers of knowledge.  Rather, we are mediators in series of connections and attendant meaning for our students.  By instilling and assisting our student’s critical thinking we empower our students to self-instruct, to synthesize ideas and beget new ones, the highest level of critical thinking.

What will the future of learning look like?  Whatever it looks like, strong critical thinking must permeate the learning dynamic.  Our children from the first day they cross a school threshold must learn how to organize new information, assess uncertainties, ask good questions, determine problems to be solved, develop multiple strategies to solve problems, appreciate different points of view, work in teams, and always be open to new information that may lead to new solutions.  This is a journey that never has a final destination.  The Irish band U2 said it well, “But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”  We don’t ever want a child’s curiosity to be sated.  Feed the monster.

Lisa Randall is an amazing woman.  A child prodigy, Lisa went on to become one of the world’s best theoretical modelers in the field of particle physics.  Dr. Randall has written two fabulous books, Warped Passages and Knocking on Heaven’s Door.  These two magical discussions make the Standard Model of particle physics assessable to mere mortals like me.  Most of us look at experts like Dr. Randall as apex critical thinkers.  We stand in awe as they grapple with the seemingly incomprehensible universe.  But do you know what struck me most about Lisa and her colleagues?  It is their humility.  The more they know, the more they realize what they don’t know.  If new knowledge shatters their understanding of the universe, they do not perceive a failure.  They see an opportunity.  Lisa says, “I cannot wait for secrets of the cosmos to begin to unravel.”  What do I want the future of learning to look like in the classroom?  No matter what it physically looks like, I want my students to say, “I can’t wait to learn what comes next in my personal journey.”

What will the future of learning look like? Butler President Danko’s words were not merely a challenge, they were a warning.  Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen predicts that half of all American universities may be bankrupt by 2028.  Culture changes, American education must adapt or become irrelevant.  Will we heed the current warnings?  Can public entities subject to state and local political forces adapt quickly enough?  Do we have the requisite humility of our apex critical thinkers?  Will we commit to the challenge?  The clock is ticking.