Sunday, February 27, 2011

Internet vs. Textbooks

"The Internet doesn’t steal our humanity, it reflects it. The Internet doesn’t get inside us, it shows what’s inside us." (Rose, J. How social media is having a positive impact on our culture. Retrieved February 25, 2010 at

I love the Internet. It is exciting, impressive, and my own oracle of Delphi (so to speak). This morning I was watching the the 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty. I had my iPad with me as I watched it, and I searched the Internet learning as much as I could about the story, the real information about the crew, where they settled, what became of the descendants of the mutineers, and whatever happened to Captain Bligh! (I believe Heidi Hayes Jacobs would call this processing the essential questions of personal curriculum map!)

I find myself multi-tasking with the Internet to enhance my understanding of a movie plot or information about the actors and actresses in the story. It adds an incredible third dimension to my appreciation of the movie, or a show, or the news.

I remember hearing noted futurist and technologist Alan November tell my doctoral class at Seton Hall, that technology is about information. How to use it, find it, and learn from it.

Isn't that what our students in school should be doing?

Maybe they are, to some extent, in their own way, but when I observe a teacher lecturing a blackboard or an overhead projector, using a pointless PowerPoint, or "controlling" a self-opinionated perspective on some issue, all to prepare his/her students for the TEST, I wonder how useless our 21st Century Schools have become. In fact, I would refrain from describing them as 21st Century, and more a throwback to a 19th Century schoolmaster image.

Diane Lewis, Director of Technology in Seminole County Schools, states that if you can Google it, why teach it? Instead, we should be showing students how to use the technology to research and use information. (Mellon, E. (2011 February). Virtually Possible. District Administration. Retrieved February 26, 2011 at

Active engagement with resources now available on the Internet can open a world of resources for our students. Why we still rely on useless textbooks that are static and never evolving with up-to-date information is beyond my comprehension. Is it fear that keeps us from pushing our students further to the point where they might know more than our teachers?

Schools of the future need to harness the energy of the Internet and begin facilitating the next level of learning for our students.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Angel in the Marble vs. Best Practices

Whoever created the phrase “best practice”? Is it the kind of comment that justifies all things? Was it created in the spirit of Shakespeare’s “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” (Loves Labour Lost, 1588)?

Is it possible that “best practice” is in the eye of the beholder?

According to Wikipedia (

“A best practice is a technique, method, process, activity, incentive, or reward which conventional wisdom regards as more effective at delivering a particular outcome than any other technique, method, process, etc. when applied to a particular condition or circumstance. The idea is that with proper processes, checks, and testing, a desired outcome can be delivered with fewer problems and unforeseen complications. Best practices can also be defined as the most efficient (least amount of effort) and effective (best results) way of accomplishing a task, based on repeatable procedures that have proven themselves over time for large numbers of people.”

This definition implies there is a specific benchmark or standard that is desired. Well, who established the standard? A governing board of directors, such as the NYS Regents, or others?

At times we have heard from the non-research types, such as professional developer consultants that feel the need to justify their position, sometimes without any basis for doing so, that what they are selling our schools is a “best practice”. Well, I would challenge “according to whom? Where is the citation? Where is the research that evaluates and proves that a technique is truly best practice.

Well, instead of allowing others to decide the standards or the principles by which “best practice” should exist, allow us to consider how Michelangelo Buonaroti (1475-1564) established a benchmark for his work. It is said before he began to work on a block of marble for a sculptural depiction he would comment that he must release the “angel in the marble”. And, through hard work, effort and many chisel strokes, he created some of the most enduring works of art.

Talk about establishing “best practice”!

As 21st Century School leaders we need to stop using inhuman rationalizations such as “best practice” and begin individualizing learning for each and every child that truly releases the “angel in the marble”, and not blindly accept the notion that benchmark standards and esoteric data points and assessments will educate a human being. We need to encourage our teachers to meet the students where they are and tap the potential of their interest and motivation in order to provide a lifeline of creativity and innovation for that “angel in the marble”, and truly establish a new expectation for what best practice is.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Communication is key

To communicate or not to communicate, that is the question.

Anthony Robbins, motivational guru once commented:
"To effectively communicate, we must all realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and the way we perceive and use this understanding in how we communicate with others."

Anyone aspiring to become a school leader of the future, should learn that the key to success and acceptance by a community is to communicate. This is something I learned working as a superintendent in the most real experiences of my career.

Barack Obama popularized the idea of "transparency" as a concept that I tried to emulate. Building trust between the community and the district meant that they have a right to see all of the nitty gritty of the district, such as employment contracts, budget detail, and anything else, with the exception of personnel issues.

Another great communication tool is to get out ahead of things by using the world wide web. Get your school district to have a presence on Facebook and Twitter, or use a school notifier network that employs emails, texting and other contact media to get information to parent. Advertise and advocate through social media to build the trust of the world wide community, and transparency and trust will thrive.

I have been blessed working with two outstanding communications specialists, affiliated with the Capital Region BOCES of upstate New York. Their names were Jessica and Matt, both talented and unabashedly the best sounding boards I could have worked with in my central office position. Not only did they meet with me to discuss my programs and directions about the district, they also framed all of these ideas in how they would be received by the community.

Communication is key to being a successful school leader. It goes beyond sending a letter home when things go awry. School leaders communicate the excitement and pulse of the school.

Find ways to share the real enthusiasm of a school district.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dealing With School Change

Dealing with Change

In 1842 William A. Alcott, a now forgotten member of that legendary American family of letters, wrote a series of articles for the Connecticut Common School Journal, asking teachers across America to make use of the newest educational technology : He wrote: [and I quote] "A black board, in every school house, is as indispensably necessary as a stove or fireplace; and in large schools several of them might be useful."
He continues:
"Slates are as necessary as black boards, and even more so. But they are liable to be broken, it will be said, as to render it expensive to parents to keep their children supplied with them."
"[Why] are books necessary at all, when the pupils are furnished with slates? “

"Change" is a bitter pill to swallow.

As we all continue our work of leading dynamic 21st Century schools, how often does the preceding comment come back to haunt us? Anyone committed to innovating their schools will feel this twinge of regret when the first comments of resistance start coming in from teachers who are scared of doing things differently.

In Jennifer Miller's February 23, 2011 blog Leading Change, Change Management and the Law of Diminishing Returns, the following lines open the post:
"People HATE change.
They loathe and despise it. They see it, abhor it and team up to fight it.
Mind you, not all people, all the time. But certainly most people, much of the time."

This past school year, I decided it was time to move our school district towards a 1:1 learning initiative using personal technology devices and replacing the rarely used textbooks that our students haul around. The access to the Internet and exploiting the interest our students have for technology and researching their interests would have opened a new world of educational opportunities.

The plan was researched and developed by our administrators and teachers working collaboratively in planning every step of the transition. When it was announced, the naysayers came forward and began standing in the way. When we engaged these few teachers that were resistant and critical of the change effort in a collaborative forum, designed to discuss their concerns, the key themes coming from their comments were:

Teachers lack of classroom control.
Teachers inability to be the center of learning.
Teachers scared they will be unable to direct the learning.
Teachers scared they will not be able to be as tech smart as the students..

The greatest impediment to leading change in schools are teachers that lack the motivation to think out of the box. Teachers who will not let go of absolute control. They restrain children with emotional strings of fear keeping their students from pursuing learning on their own terms.

Have you ever observed a high school math teacher lecture a blackboard while explaining a problem?

The challenge of 21st Century schools will be to inspire and motivate teachers to truly be mentors of learning and not controller of absolute learning. As Heidi Hayes Jacobs reminds us, we need to risk doing new things if we wish to motivate children to become all they are capable of becoming.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Politicians Love to Blame Education

Imagine if you will, the challenge of running IBM or GE or some similar blue chip organization and having to explain that you no longer have the funds to pay for employees that contribute their talents for the good of the business. That's what is happening in school districts across the US, as dedicated school superintendents are attempting to wrestle with huge deficits and the mandate to provide a 21st Century education....Good luck!

In the throes of the days of the Vietnam War, there was a popular aphorism that went like this: wouldn't it be great when schools get all the money they need, and the Air Force has to run a bake sale to buy a B-52 Bomber?

Unfortunately, history is replete with many examples how education is an afterthought when it comes to money. But, when the TIMMS and PIMS reports come due, political leaders like to say there is a crisis in education. Shall we ever forget Senator Al D'Amato barking that charge to teacher unions back in the late '80's complaining they are overpaid, incompetent, and hustling the public? The same thing is happening today.

A scandal in the mortgage industry creates a major economic recession/depression, and the schools of this country have inherited the fault of this debacle by being accused of incompetence, overpaid teachers and administrators, and closings. But, what of the bankers and legislators that created the debacle? They received more federal and state money to continue their rampage, and the legislators got re-elected to continue their incompetent decision making.

Where is the justice? Well, despite any educator advocating to children that the system works, the reality is, it does not. The funding has been reduced, property tax caps have been created, and thousands of talented, dedicated teachers, working for less than equitable pay are being laid off, as the scape goats. Programs and opportunities for children have been eliminated, and the funding mechanism that runs the public schools has imploded.

The purpose of this continuing blog is to air the obvious concerns that seem to be evident to me, a school superintendent. I would love to hear from others.