Wednesday, October 24, 2012

All leaders should read this letter

Ann Coulter and her conspiring attack dogs that label themselves caring human beings should really learn something from this letter.

An Open Letter to Ann Coulter
Posted on October 23, 2012 by Tim Shriver

John Franklin Stephens

The following is a guest post in the form of an open letter from Special Olympics athlete and global messenger John Franklin Stephens to Ann Coulter after this tweet during last night’s Presidential debate.

Dear Ann Coulter,

Come on Ms. Coulter, you aren’t dumb and you aren’t shallow. So why are you continually using a word like the R-word as an insult?

I’m a 30 year old man with Down syndrome who has struggled with the public’s perception that an intellectual disability means that I am dumb and shallow. I am not either of those things, but I do process information more slowly than the rest of you. In fact it has taken me all day to figure out how to respond to your use of the R-word last night.

I thought first of asking whether you meant to describe the President as someone who was bullied as a child by people like you, but rose above it to find a way to succeed in life as many of my fellow Special Olympians have.

Then I wondered if you meant to describe him as someone who has to struggle to be thoughtful about everything he says, as everyone else races from one snarkey sound bite to the next.

Finally, I wondered if you meant to degrade him as someone who is likely to receive bad health care, live in low grade housing with very little income and still manages to see life as a wonderful gift.

Because, Ms. Coulter, that is who we are – and much, much more.

After I saw your tweet, I realized you just wanted to belittle the President by linking him to people like me. You assumed that people would understand and accept that being linked to someone like me is an insult and you assumed you could get away with it and still appear on TV.

I have to wonder if you considered other hateful words but recoiled from the backlash.

Well, Ms. Coulter, you, and society, need to learn that being compared to people like me should be considered a badge of honor.

No one overcomes more than we do and still loves life so much.

Come join us someday at Special Olympics. See if you can walk away with your heart unchanged.

A friend you haven’t made yet,
John Franklin Stephens
Global Messenger
Special Olympics Virginia

Monday, October 22, 2012

Systems Thinking = Shared Supportive Thinking

Schools are people organizations. From the children entering the school each day, their parents that pack them off to be entrusted to the school environment, to the maintenance grounds/custodial workers, bus drivers, cafeteria staff to the faculty and administrators. Schools revolve around children, but are powered by the imagination and creative juices of adults that support the "system" of the school district. So, how does this idea of systems thinking (which is a domain of the learning organization) play out in the world of the learning community (the domain of a shared and supportive environment)? Thus, today's post.

Systems thinking has been described as a the continuous improvement level of the learning model. It is that feedback loop or quality circle, that is required for everyone to be on track with each other and for the good of the organization. It is the arena that takes an issue effecting the output of the organization, and frames it within a problem-solving mode for solutions that will enhance and grow the positive outcome of the issue.
Scenario A: A few years ago, I had the honor of visiting the Steinway Piano Factory in Steinway, Queens, NY. In this historic building of 5 floors, is an assembly line of great, historic significance, since the greatest pianos in musical history were made here. Each floor of the plant had different divisions or departments where a different aspect of the piano was addressed, and made. From the creation of the soundboard, to the stringing of the piano, to the installation of the hammers to the wood carpentry and veneer. This was an involved and focused operation whose sole purpose is to make the best sounding piano possible, each and every time.
While strolling around the plant on a guided tour, I noticed that in each area there was a wall chart with the company motto, and a chart for workers to write concerns for continuous improvement meetings. I inquired about what this meant, and one of shop stewards said each division of the plant/assembly line meets in continuous improvement meetings once a month for the purpose of discussing concerns and issues that are affecting the output quality. This is an example of systems thinking.

Scenario B: A new middle school principal took over a school that had poor ELA writing scores on statewide tests. He made it his goal to get the building focused on how to address this weakness and to get everyone on board with a major issue of concern for the sake of promoting a positive student achievement. At the first faculty meeting of the school year he outlined how important this was, and his expectation that everyone in the school, not just the ELA teachers, would be involved in this effort. He informed the parents of his mission for the school, and assured parents that this was a mandatory mission to move their children forward in their educational achievement. Throughout the school year, building-wide assessments were used to pre-test the situation, and periodically check on efforts across the board. Next, all teachers, regardless of subject area were responsible for teaching writing, and they had to get on board with all teaching from the same play book. Long story short, the scores improved, synergy and focused teaching were established, and systems thinking prevailing across the board.

What prevents systems thinking or shared supportive thinking are the few individuals that resent this kind of team work. In the words of Jim Collins from Good to Great, move them off the bus. These organizational learning models need strong leaders, willing to work at a great and noble task. Putting up with the self-centered teacher that will not cooperate with this purpose will stress and negate the effort. Leaders need to be bold and move them away from positive outcomes. 

In the words of Lao Tzu: "When Simplicity is broken up, It is made into instruments. Evolved individuals who employ them, Are made into leaders. In this way, the Great System is United."

The Tao Te Ching (Verse 28)

Systems thinking is the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole. In nature, systems thinking examples include ecosystems in which various elements such as air, water, movement, plants, and animals work together to survive or perish. In organizations, systems consist of people, structures, and processes that work together to make an organization "healthy" or "unhealthy".
Systems thinking has been defined as an approach to problem solving, by viewing "problems" as parts of an overall system, rather than reacting to specific part, outcomes or events and potentially contributing to further development of unintended consequences. Systems thinking is not one thing but a set of habits or practices[2] within a framework that is based on the belief that the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation. Systems thinking focuses on cyclical rather than linear cause and effect.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

You say to-may-toe, and I say to-mah-toe...

The song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” was a big hit in 1937 when the Gershwin brothers wrote it for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the movie, “Shall We Dance”. But, for the purpose of my blogpost this week, it suits my topic. Read on and you will see.

There are two types of learning models for organizations, both having gained much publicity and attention in the last 20 years. Each model has a variety of strengths and weaknesses, and have been used successfully in different types of organizations. They are “professional learning organizations” and “professional learning communities”. The latter predominantly refers to school organizations, and is espoused by a number of people, such as Shirley Hord, Thomas Sergiovanni, the DuFours, and others. The former was developed for business organizations by well-known management specialist and MIT professor, Peter Senge in 1992. The purpose of this blog is to begin a series of articles on what these organizations mean for our present day efforts to promote accountability and increase student achievement.

The model of the learning organization is a well-known framework for redefining and revitalizing organizations. Peter Senge developed it under the assumption that organizations derive their ability to adapt, learn, and assimilate from new information and issues much like a biological organism adapts to its environment. The model is made up of five components, when shown here will articulate the kind renewing of process advocated for these organizations.

Components of the Learning Organization

  • Systems Thinking: a conceptual framework that allows organizational members to assess their organization and measure the performance output as a whole and its various components.
  • Personal Mastery: commitments made by organization members to continually learn and develop proficiency within the organization’s efforts.
  • Mental Models: assumptions held by individuals and organizations. To become a learning organization these models must by challenged. The catch phrase “but this is how we always did this” must be removed from the culture for more risk taking, and effective vision.
  • Shared Vision: a key to team effort and motivation for members to learn from each situation.
  • Team Learning: the accumulation of individual learning into teams that continue processing issues, changes, and challenges. It engages members in open and frank discussions about how to do things more efficiently and better.

In comparison to this model, here are the components of the Learning Community, a model developed concurrently to the learning organization literature through the 1990’s and beyond, and advocated by Shirley Hord.

Components of the Learning Community

  • Supportive and Shared Leadership: a collegial environment of administrators, and teachers in working together to improve student learning. It is a decentralized organization where everyone works together on a team.
  • Collective Creativity:  where people from different parts of the organization can work effectively in creating the results and the future they desire, together.
  • Shared Values and Vision: is the collective commitment to work for the future and the results the community desires.
  • Supportive Conditions: the physical needs and people capacities required for members to work together for organizational learning, decision-making, problem solving, and creative work.
  • Shared Personal Practice: peers helping peers where teacher evaluation is renewing experience for professional development.

So, there you have the comparison of the two models. Both have the ability to do great things in education. Both, have proven effective for 21st Century School Leaders to adapt in their organizations. Many districts have begun the process of becoming learning organizations or communities. And still, there are obstinate systems waiting for a cataclysm to force the issue. Since the end result is to develop prepared, skilled members of the future, then schools need to reorganize their thinking and their processes to get students across the line of accountable progress. 

No matter what you call it, Learning Organization (To-may-to) or Learning Community (To-mah-to), find a way to learn more about these models and advocate for change in your schools.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Malala Yousufza, Another Windmill Chaser?

Nothing has been more frustrating with world events than the senseless horror of harassment and physical battering a young girl received at the hands of Islamic extremists. All because she wanted an education. A chance at a better life, to read, write, to reason, and be a contributing member of society...her society. This young child from Pakistan has a story for everyone in the world to remember. Education is a right for all human beings. She was not scared to be bullied by extremists, and stood her small frame for all she believed in her giant heart.

What example does Malala provide us?

In my previous blog I wrote about the "greater fool", the quixotic hero figure that stands for something against the powers that be. Are we willing to stand up against them, as this young girl did, all for an education?

Malala Yousufzai, a beautiful girl from Pakistan, should be a hero for all of us, across the world.

Please keep her in your thoughts.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Greater Fool, Quixote, and the Tea Party

Don Quixote: I mean to engage in battle...
 for this is righteous warfare,

I have long been enamored of, and described to be a “romantic”, the great fanatic, that sees life as a series of quixotic episodes to right the wrong of society and pave the way for a better world of educating children to take the reigns of an unknown future. I’ll never forget someone saying that to me many years ago in an attempt to deflate my ego, and possibly to detract my ambitions. Painful though it was to hear, I persisted in my beliefs and hopes that one day, maybe I could make a difference as a teacher, and eventually as a school administrator.

I suppose in a real way I would like to be described instead as the “greater fool”. Used to describe a person that believes in a long term investment, despite short term failures, the “Greater Fool Theory” describes “buying something not because you believe that it is worth the price, but rather because you believe that you will be able to sell it to someone else at an even higher price.”1

Thankfully, there is an alternative definition that sounds something like this: "The greater fool is someone with the perfect blend of self delusion and ego to think that he can succeed where others have failed. This whole country was made by greater fools."2

 I much prefer the latter description. 

For over the past year and a half, through some 150 blog posts, I have sought to encourage a greater commitment to a vivid educational society, than what we have become. To rise beyond the criticism of Tea Party politicians and hacks posing as  political leaders that denounce our educational system as being faulty and in decline because they enjoy riling the public for an issue that is easy to destroy. So, to illustrate their arguments, they hire private companies, sponsored by conservative political movements to create exams, tests, and evaluation systems that assert our educational system is in decline, and to support their agenda. 

According to, the connection between Pearson, McGraw Hill, and other testing and assessment developers and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC),  is quite clear. “Some of Pearson's associations with ALEC and/or parallel corporate-model approach to privatizing education at a profit” is the backbone of the reform agenda being advocated by dubious politicians, who also claim our current system is dysfunctional. 3

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) describes itself as the largest “membership association of state legislators,” but over 98% of its revenue comes from sources other than legislative dues, primarily from corporations and corporate foundations.

"Look, your worship," said Sancho; 
"what we see there are not giants but windmills,
 and what seem to be their arms 
are the sails that turn by the wind 
and make the millstone go."

Through ALEC, behind closed doors, corporations hand state legislators the changes to the law they desire that directly benefit their bottom line. Along with legislators, corporations have membership in ALEC. Corporations sit on all nine ALEC task forces and vote with legislators to approve “model” bills. They have their own corporate governing board which meets jointly with the legislative board. Corporations fund almost all of ALEC's operations. Participating legislators, overwhelmingly conservative Republicans, then bring those proposals home and introduce them in statehouses across the land as their own brilliant ideas and important public policy innovations—without disclosing that corporations crafted and voted on the bills. ALEC boasts that it has over 1,000 of these bills introduced by legislative members every year, with one in every five of them enacted into law. ALEC describes itself as a “unique,” “unparalleled” and “unmatched” organization.

Organizations like ALEC circumvent the democratic process in favor of corporations. Financial resources are used to influence public officials and provide model legislation meant to easily pass through state houses of governance. Recent examples include infamous "Stand Your Ground" laws [Florida] and others that seek to limit the voting rights of marginalized populations. Education reform legislation is also part of ALEC's agenda, with substantial sponsorship from corporate funds to divert the flow of valuable taxpayer dollars away from public schools.”4

From this melee of criticism and argument, the very educational system of our instruction and curriculum is in upheaval with a mentality of testing the begeebies out of everything, and anything, just to support this agenda. The question that keeps surfacing for me, is how will this culture of testing prepare children for the future? 

My answer, it will not. Instead it will frustrate the creative process and innovative spirit of well-meaning teachers, administrators and parents who support quality schools for all children. 

"It is easy to see," replied Don Quixote, 
"that thou art not used to this business of adventures; 
those are giants; and if thou art afraid, 
away with thee out of this and betake thyself to prayer 
while I engage them in fierce and unequal combat."

Make your voice and your vote count. They are not just "windmills".

1.    The greater fool. In Wikipedia.Retrieved from http://en/
2.    Sorkin, A. (Writer) (2012). The greater fool. [Television series episode]. In Sorkin, A. (Executive Producer), The Newsroom. New York: HBO. Retrieved at
3.    (2012) Boycott Pearson and McGraw-Hill and hold everyone accountable. ED Notes Online. Retrieved from

Friday, October 12, 2012

Risky is the New Safe

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece about the "fear of failure" that prevents organizations and schools from changing and adapting to the current issues and problems facing education and student achievement. (  I would like to expand on this theme today and comment on a piece I read by leadership writer, Steve Keating (2012). It's entitled:  "It isn't safe to play it safe"1. While his blog is directed toward business and organizational change, there is much to learn that we can apply to our schools.

 "The only way to be safe today is to take a risk! I'm not talking crazy, thoughtless risk; I'm talking about thoughtful, considered risk. Doing the same thing next year that you did last year will not get you the same results. The people that thrive in the coming years will be the first who realize that just because something was the right thing to do yesterday doesn't mean it's still the right thing to do today (Keating, 2012)."

What a powerful message for 21st Century School Leaders!! To assume previous practice is just fine does not make it an effective strategy for today or  tomorrow.

How many times do we hear from the status quo types the disinterested phrase: "But, that's how we always did it."These are the people in schools- and in organizations in general- that frustrate the progress of dynamic change in schools. They are comfortable in their classroom and unwilling to confront the possibility of change because it is too "risky"! As Cindy Ventrice writes: "That's the way we’ve always done it," a phrase that cripples our imaginations and limits our potential 2.

My next door neighbor just retired from his place of employment after 30 years. As he was cleaning out his desk and his office he came across a notebook given to him by his predecessor in the job. He told my friend, this is the notebook that explains everything there is to know and do about the job he was inheriting. My neighbor, Doug, said he never looked at it once in the 30 years he was with GE, since he did not wish to be influenced by routine, but wanted to place his own spin on the job. Thirty years later he took it out of his desk and threw it away.

A few years ago, my predecessor as Superintendent in our school district announced at the opening day of the new school year that "Bethlehem was a good school district, not great! Good was the enemy of great." In one simple phrase he disarmed the comfort level of an entire faculty and community, and shook the inner recesses of the organization to begin rethinking how our school district needs to take a good look at how we have done things, reflect on these practices and change things up for the future. 

Naturally, this presentation met with controversy, frustration, bickering, ridicule, and commentary that slowed the pace of the change effort desired by the superintendent. But, he wasn't scared to stand in front of the organization of 800 people and light a fuse of risk, change, challenge and redirection. He didn't play it safe that day, but created a risk opportunity for himself that had the best intentions of the students in his thinking and his mindset.

 "No matter what you do and no matter how you do it, it's highly unlikely that you can maintain your success by just continuing to do it indefinitely. The world is changing everyday and everyday it changes a little faster than the day before. There is no more 'safe', you either accept the challenge of risk or you accept your fate. The choice is yours (Keating, 2012)"

Remember, in education "risky" is the new safe. 

1.     Keating, S. (2012, October 12). It isn't safe to play it safe. [BLOG]. Retrieved from October 12, 2012 at

2.     Ventrice, C. (1998).That's the way we've always done it. [BLOG] Potential Unlimited.  Retrieved October 12, 2012 from

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Education is too important to be left to politicians!

In a few days, the election will be over. The nasty, vitriolic campaigns for various political offices will be a thing of the past, and those annoying commercials where someone is “approving” the ad, will cease for another year. Or, will they?

It never ceases to amaze me that the package of deceit, and the politics of personal destruction are what seem to make up the current state of American politics. The people of this nation become immune to it, and the children of this generation are held hostage by it.

Thanks to the rhetoric of past campaigns, and the “do-nothing” important approach of political leadership, we have movements such as “No Child Left Behind”, or “Race to the Top” , which in theory sounded great, but in actual practice have created a bitter process of preparing kids for the future of our society. In fact, there is considerable opinion that these political movements for education have thrust our society back into the stone age of educational progress, where not passing a test will be cause to fire a teacher. 

We currently live in the twelfth year of the 21st Century, and educational progress is still rooted on a foundation of 19th Century schooling, where one size fits all, and the compartmentalization of instruction is rigid, inflexible, and unable to truly adapt to the changing technology and needs of a diverse and exciting future. We have the politicians to thank for this stifling of educational potential, and let’s not forget that. They, in fact, hold the purse strings for schools to be functional, and whether we like it or not, we endure their vitriol and hyperbola because we are stewards for the educational good of children and we are good soldiers.  

Attempting to “squish” every child into an assembly line of learning is disastrous, as can be seen by the number of kids failing to make this boundary. “Testing the begeebies” out of kids and relinquishing groups of kids to the gallows of remediation in order to make the grade is a heartless and extremely painful way to prepare children for the future. Society - educators and politicians- rob kids of their creative future because of this, and we doom future innovation and imagination to the memories of other nations, because of it this penchant testing nonsense.

I allow myself one essay a year to complain about this stuff, and with the election so close, I chose today.  Education is too important to be used as a pummeling bag by verbose, and incompetent politicos that occupy chairs of authority and hold the purse strings. Let’s hope that someday real leaders will be found to sit in these places of authority and change the rhetoric.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Mistakes Leaders Make, No. 3: Fear of Failing

I believe that all human beings, at some point in their lives, fear the idea of failing at something.  Whether it is studying for a test, competing in a sporting event, or just being in a situation that exposes a weakness that you may have desired to cover up, for fear of being recognized a “failure” or a person that cannot be trusted with responsibility or position. Unfortunately, it is the result of being brought up in this American culture of competition, achievement, and success or nothing, that this fear of failure has prevailed for so long, in so many lives. 

Thanks to movements such as “No Child Left Behind” (or else),  and “common core” (learn it or lose it), that we are raising another unfortunate group of children that “failing” is bad. Or, being consigned to the “gallows” of AIS (academic intervention services) or “extra help” is the same as “achieve, achieve, achieve or BE A FAILURE”!

In a blog by Peter Sims (2012) for and the Harvard Business Review, much of the training and development executive business leadership is focused on a success-driven society that deters people from even considering failure as an option in the work place. 

“Most of us in business, if we need to discover how to do something new, use PowerPoint or Excel spreadsheets to rationalize our approach. This is what I call "the illusion of rationality." Whether motivated by a lack of insight arrogance, or stupidity, the illusion of rationality is a waste of time and resources — yet one that keeps a lot of people employed in management...” (Sims, 2012,

He mentions that this culture that fear risk-taking for fear of failing is a result of the way schools have encultured this idea in actions and words:

“If you're an MBA-trained manager or executive, the odds are you were never, at any point in your educational or professional career given permission to fail, even on a "little bet." Your parents wanted you to achieve, achieve, achieve — in sports, the classroom, and scouting or work. Your teachers penalized you for having the "wrong" answers, or knocked your grades down if you were imperfect, according to however your adult figures defined perfection.” (Sims, 2012, CEO)

So, for part 3 of this series “The Mistake Leaders Make”, fearing failure constrains the possibility of taking a chance, risking or being creative. Jeffery Immelt, CEO of GE insists on an organizational culture where failure is a chance to be adaptive, and creative. That every situation is filled with uncertainty and unknowns, and as long as people are willing to accept that premise, new information and new results are possible.

There are plenty of opportunities for school leaders to resist the “fear of failure” and welcome the opportunity to risk, adapt, and be creative. In issues of school finance, curriculum development, union negotiations, and student discipline, creativity is the objective, not failing. 

Thomas Edison is attributed with the following phrase: “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” But, I rather like another quote he is to have said that will conclude this blog:

“Many of life's failures are men who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.

Sims, P. (October 5, 2012). The No. 1 Enemy of Creativity: Fear of Failure. [BLOG] CEO.COM. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved October 8, 2012 at