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Issue Insights

Issue Insights

 

            For twenty-five years we systematically tracked trends and identified issues facing education.  Each year our work culminated in a document describing the top issues. Originally the document was called The Top Ten Issues Facing America’s Public Schools.  That became Critical Issues Facing America’s Schools.  In recent years, the document was called What’s Hot-What’s Not:  Critical Issues Facing America’s Schools.

            Our publicly disseminated work in issues identification has now ended.  Today we track trends and manage issues only for selected clients.  That aside, many of the issues that we identified over the years will have implications for years to come.  For example, the changing role of school boards, leadership vacuums, and the accountability movement (with its simultaneous seriousness and silliness) are issues that we identified in the 1970s.  They remain significant challenges today.

            In the early 1980s we said that special education was “out of control” and would, left unchecked, threaten the solvency of general education.  Most school districts continue to struggle with the funding of mandated special programs.

            Later in the 1980s we identified student behavior as a continuing challenge, and terrorism as “the unthinkable issue.”  And here we are.

            What follows is a collection of issues written since the turn of the century.  The name of the issue  is followed by year that the issue was on our annual list.

            These issues are presented here because they continue to have relevance and because they underline the strategic necessity of continuing to scan the horizon for trends and issues that have potential for impacting education. 

            As has been the case for a quarter century, we invite you to think about the issues and discuss them with your colleagues and friends.

 

EXTERNAL FORCES (2000)

(Most organizations – including school districts – do not have

effective vehicles for anticipating change.)

 

More than three-quarters of the change that impacts you – whether you are a person, a family, a school district, or a business -- is triggered by an external force. Action taken in Washington, for example, frequently affects everyone in the country.  Externally enacted policies, rules, and laws often determine how we operate our institutions and go about our daily chores.

Yet, most organizations – including school districts – do not have effective vehicles for anticipating change.  This means that they can’t capitalize on it; rather, they’re always reacting to it.

Thinking may be the answer.  No one disputes its importance, and many believe that it’s the key to creating strategic advantage. 

Yet, most workers will tell you that they spend most of their time patching potholes.  Consumed by the emergency of the moment, they find themselves too busy to think.

Even strategic planning hasn’t helped us get ahead of the change curve.  One reason is that many strategic plans are not strategic.  They simply maintain or incrementally ratchet up the status quo. Rarely do they accommodate the radical change forces that will have a significant impact on our future.

We know that we can’t hide from the forces of radical change. And we’ve learned that running faster and working harder may be strategies of diminishing returns in an environment characterized by radical change.  That’s why leaders must develop effective strategies for anticipating and addressing change.  This will be difficult to do if they are busy patching potholes.

 

SATISFYING THE CUSTOMER (2000)

(There is a direct correlation between the number of students lost

and the number of staff disappearing.)

 

            Competition reminds us that we have to be responsive to customers. We learned this lesson from business. In fact, many schools have become more effective at customer service than most businesses (and much more effective than most public utilities and governmental agencies).

Educators still wince when the people they serve are referred to as customers.  But there’s little sympathy in a political world.  Politics has determined how much money a student is worth and who should be paid.  Politics has created choices in the educational marketplace.  And, as a result of politics, many states fund schools this way:  Gain a student; gain money from the state.  Lose a student; lose money from the state.

This funding model has made us more attentive to enrollment projections and much more sensitive to enrollment declines.

Everyone on the school staff knows that schools are people. More than ninety percent of school budgets are typically allocated to salaries.  It doesn’t require an advanced math degree to figure out that there is a direct correlation between the number of students lost and the number of staff disappearing.

In such an environment, it’s important to keep the customer satisfied.  Satisfied customers bring repeat business.  And repeat business keeps you in business.  

 

CIVILITY (2000)

(It seems to be getting easier to find adult behaviors

that we don’t want our children to emulate.)

 

What happened to good manners and common decency?  It seems to be getting easier to find adult behaviors that we don’t want our children to emulate.              More school people are finding themselves exposed to ill-mannered parents and other constituents.  Sometimes they’re simply unappreciative.  (One principal, unable to contact parents, sat at the hospital with their daughter for six hours.  When the parents finally arrived, neither parent expressed thanks.  Instead, the mother asked the principal if she didn’t have anything better to do that afternoon.  Then the mother said, “I assume the hospital will be sending their bill to you.”)

Sometimes irate citizens demand action, and if they don’t get what they want, they threaten.  On one end of the I’ll get you-continuum, they threaten to speak with a higher authority.  In the middle of the continuum, they threaten to take legal action.  And, at the extreme end of the continuum, they threaten personal harm. 

These behaviors have led some districts to adopt “civility policies.”  In a California school district, for example, unacceptable adult behaviors and the consequences for exhibiting them are spelled out.  The district’s policy informs people that verbal and physical assaults on staff members will not be tolerated.

In a Michigan school district, people attending school board meetings are given a brochure which states that citizen presentations to the board should be “… without demeaning and/or disparaging comments.” 

Schools do a pretty good job of teaching students how to discuss and debate things in a civil manner.  Unfortunately, it’s a lesson that isn’t being reinforced in too many homes.  Because the consequences of incivility can be devastating in so many ways, school people need to lead community efforts in this area.  They can start by demanding everyone to exhibit good manners and common decency.

 

FUNDAMENTAL UNCERTAINTY (1990; Updated in 2001)

 

(There is no retreat to the comforts of certainty.)

 

Ten years ago I talked about an anxiety our ancestors surely had as they looked toward the future.  I called it fundamental uncertainty.

Fundamental uncertainty is the result of our position in time, and it is as constant as the clock. 

In the not-too-distant past, fundamental uncertainty was a backward-forward kind of thing.  We could stand on a cliff, look over the river and prairie, and try to see a way over the distant snow-capped mountains.  There were no guideposts, and no one to tell us which way to go.

Today we live in a multi-dimensional world.  There is no retreat to the comforts of certainty. And, while we have an entirely new perspective, we still lack directional signs and skilled guides telling us which way to go.

But we can take some comfort in our uncertainty because it causes us to ask questions, and change comes from the questions we ask. For example,

n Should teachers be people?

n Should students be children?

n Should communities have houses?

n Should we do business in a business place?

n Should parents be partners in the educational process? 

n Should we enhance our public schools or replace them with other educational options?

As we answer our questions, we move closer to the mountains. At the same time we find our experiences less comforting because experience provides the greatest benefit when things stay the same.  Experience with rivers is of little help on the prairie and even less in the mountains. Every answer brings more uncertainty.

All institutions seem to be in this position – fundamentally uncertain.

But in a period like this, there are many things that are fundamentally certain, including:

n Students will learn. They may not go to a school, but they will go someplace to learn. Or someplace will come to them.  Of this we are certain.  Our digital world has made place irrelevant and may make learning unavoidable.

n Students will always need someone to teach them.  But we’re not certain if that someone will be a teacher or even a human. A combination of the two seems to be a good bet.

n There will always be a better way.   Student achievement can always be improved.  So, too, can communication and planning and parent involvement and work-related training and a host of other things.  Sometimes we’ll discover better paths along the way.  And sometimes we will see the better way only from the perspective of hindsight.

We are standing on a platform at the edge of the millennium. While all of us have some uncertainty about the next best move, we’re certain to try a number of things.  And we’ll learn from our successes and our failures as we always have.  But it’s certain that we’ll continue to be fundamentally uncertain.

 

MEASURING THINGS (2001)

 

(... it’s folly to use inputs we can’t quantify to make educated

guesses about outcomes.)

 

Albert Einstein may have been sending a message to educational reformers when he said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

For example, student achievement counts, and we can count it.  By counting it, we have been able to enhance what works and attend to that which doesn’t.

We’ve learned that the quality of the curriculum counts, too. And we’ve done quite a bit to quantify its elements.  As a result, we can produce instructional goals, objectives, and activities such that -- when everything is added up -- we can tell whether a learner has progressed or not.

We have learned a great deal by measuring things.

But we’ve also learned – as Einstein claimed – that we can’t count some things that really count.

While we know that quality teaching counts, it can’t be quantified.  We can measure some of its dimensions -- the length of a teacher’s training and experience, the number of college credits a teacher has earned in a given subject area, and so on.  But no one can produce a number that indicates whether the quality of teaching is good or bad or somewhere in between.  No one, in fact, can say that the quality of teaching in a classroom is a five or a 10 or the square root of 300.

The quality of teaching is on the softer side of education. People know it when they see it, but they can’t tell you exactly what it is. While it would be desirable to measure a caring attitude, student focus, enthusiasm for the instructional process, excitement, and dedication to students, the fact is that these measurements elude us.

Lately we’ve gotten a little silly about counting things. This, no doubt, is the result of using business models that are concerned with inputs and outputs, goals attained and targets missed, profits amassed and dividends paid.

When it comes to schooling, however, we have learned that business models have two fundamental flaws.  First, they fail to accommodate variances.  Public education’s raw products -- students -- vary.  Some students are talented; others aren’t. Some smile; others don’t.  Some come from positive environments; others don’t. Some are well fed; others are hungry. These variations dictate that inputs cannot be uniform -- they must be adjusted, youngster-by-youngster. Business models have difficulty accounting for and reconciling the reality of these variances.

A second flaw of business models is their failure to account for things that can’t be quantified.  When a youngster does well on a test, is it because of innate ability, supportive parents, a quality learning environment, an enthusiastic teacher, or because he read the book and figured out the answers?  It may be the result of all these things ... but we really don’t know.  And, until we do, it’s folly to use inputs we can’t quantify to make educated guesses about outcomes.

Until we can assess the quality of teaching, quantify teachable moments, and measure other secret ingredients of the instructional process, we won’t have a defining number for the quality of education.

Einstein failed first grade math.  Maybe that’s when he learned that people shouldn’t be counted out too soon.  No one is sure how Einstein recovered from his early education set-back, but it’s a good bet that someone gave him a little quality teaching, a dash of understanding, a pinch of caring, and some other things that can’t be counted.

 

 

 

RELEVANCE (2001)

 

(So, what school information would I need at three o’clock in the morning?)

 

So? What a great question!  So simple.  So penetrating.  So necessary. We should ask it of ourselves every time we think that we’re doing something important.

Our customers ask this question every day. They look at our communications and ask themselves, “So?”

Of course, “So?” is shorthand for “So, what’s in it for me? Or “So, why should I care?”  Or “So, what relevance does that have for me?” The question is a direct descendent of “Why?”

 

The answer to “So?” and “Why?” questions is the missing ingredient in many of our communications.  When we don’t answer the questions, those who receive our communications do.  For example, we tell parents that there will be a half-day of school on Friday because of teacher training.  Not knowing any more that this, parents aren’t likely to fill in the “So?” and “Why?” gap by thinking, “I’ll bet they’re learning how to apply the state’s writing rubric.”  More likely, they’re asking themselves, “So, I wonder what the teachers will be doing all afternoon?” or “So, that means I have to find a sitter.” If you don’t ask and answer “So?” and “Why?” questions, the recipients of your communication ask and answer them.  And their answers may be 180 degrees from your answers.

“We now have every classroom wired for the Internet,” says the principal.  “So?” ask the parents as they wonder why you have every classroom wired and how teachers are using the Internet to enhance instruction.  (Sometimes we don’t answer the question because we can’t!)

“We have a new web page!” exclaims the superintendent. “So, does this mean that I won’t be getting a printed lunch menu?” think the parents. “You’ll be able to access school information round the clock,” the superintendent continues.  “So, what school information would I need at three o’clock in the morning?” think the parents.

And so it goes.

When we neglect to ask and answer “So?” and “Why?” questions, we leave out an important part of our story -- maybe the most important part. Answering “So?” and “Why?” questions before they’re asked enables recipients of our messages to determine their relevance.

Before you mail or transmit your next communication, read it and ask yourself, “So?” and “Why?”  You might find that your relevance is slipping and your message isn’t getting through.

 

 

 

LEADERSHIP (2001)

 

(... the job requires more skills than most leaders possess.)

 

Leadership has been on and off the hot/not list for the past 21 years.  This year it’s on the list again ... and it’s not hot.  Among the reasons:  It’s more difficult than ever to find (and keep) the leaders needed to fill administrative vacancies.  In addition, the professional satisfaction associated with administrative responsibility has diminished.

Becoming an administrator used to be the crown jewel of an educational career.  People worked their way up the ladder, from teacher to principal to central office. Working your way up provided acknowledgement of your skill.  Today, administrators are discovering that the job requires more skills than most leaders possess.  Faced with this, many promising leaders are electing to exercise other career options.

            Although many potential leaders seek administrative careers for the right reason -- they want to be “instructional leaders” -- the reality is that instructional leadership is difficult to exercise when you’re consumed by legal challenges, family problems, behavioral issues, safety and security, and a host of political agendas.  When promising educational leaders who are truly committed to the educational process discover that “keeping the lid on” and appeasing critics come before curriculum leadership, they often abandon ship.

To complicate matters, educational leaders now invest inordinate amounts of time working on diverse problems that often seem insurmountable.  That can make life as an administrator a roller coaster ride -- keep test scores up, keep pregnancy rates down, keep standards up, keep dropout rates down. And, as schools do more things to address more issues, the number of ups and downs will surely increase.

 

Finally, most leadership training replows old ground. Coursework focuses on traditional fare -- curriculum design, negotiation techniques, student scheduling, working with the school board, and dissecting assorted war stories.  Aspiring leaders soon learn that changing something can be a career-threatening strategy, and, so, many of our best candidates give up before they’ve advanced their first idea.

We need to ask our effective leaders to assume yet another responsibility.  We need them to help with the recruiting, training, and mentoring of people who have an interest in pursuing administrative positions.  Our best leaders need to help aspiring administrators understand what they’re getting into.   They need to help administrative candidates learn that citizens will expect them to “walk on water.”  And they need to help them understand that it’s unlikely that they’ll get all the support and respect they deserve.

But today’s leaders should also tell our aspiring administrators that this is the best time in a long time to enter the administrative ranks because there are more opportunities to make a difference than there have been in a long time.

 

COMPETITION (2002)

(Schools are being forced to compete with their friends and neighbors.)

            It’s coming from everywhere, but we’re not ready for it.  Could that be because legislators designed a competitive environment that is not good for public education?

            Why do some want our public schools to compete with other education providers?  No one advocates competition for our police and fire departments.  Like public schools, these institutions are public monopolies, and seem to do just fine. 

Why do people suggest “deregulating” and “privatizing” our public schools?  They don’t advocate higher costs, bailouts, and lousy customer service, but these have been the consequences of some notable deregulations (e.g., airlines, public utilities, the telephone industry, and savings and loan associations). And they don’t point to the flaws and ineptness that have characterized many privatization initiatives (e.g., our postal system and airport security).

In an attempt to strengthen schools by encouraging competition, lawmakers may have designed a process that will destroy more schools than it improves.

In states with body-count school funding (get a student, get money from the state; lose a student, lose money from the state), schools are being forced to compete with their friends and neighbors. 

If the only way to raise operating funds is to get a student and your community is not producing students (or your schools are losing students), you have to steal them from your neighbors.  This pits one neighbor against another. 

As the fighting intensifies friends become competitors. Some lose while others gain, yet the gains and losses may have more to do with community demographics than educational quality. 

Politicians, it seems, have succeeded in providing educators with a competitive environment.  Unfortunately, the rules will cause a few to gain and most to lose.

 

LIP SERVICE  (2002)

(We need more than lip service to improve our schools.)

            “We need to improve communication!”  Everyone from the school board chair to teachers to parents has uttered this battle cry.  But in the end, not much happens.  The battle cry is little more than lip service.

Lip Service first appeared on the Hot/Not list in 1992. The decade-old alert has been largely ignored.  Today we give great lip service to a host of things – communication, addressing change, planning, cooperating, community engagement, enhancing learning options, self-development ... and more. 

For example, people still delight in listing education’s ills.  Yet, while some propose solutions, few step to the mark and do something. Their remedy for any ailment is lip service, an elixir that changes nothing.

Historically, progress in America has been the result of working harder, smarter, and more creatively.  We have learned how difficult it is to deliver on promises and sustain commitment. Why, then, do we think all that’s needed to continually improve our schools is lip service?

            Business people talk about the importance of education and the need for a skilled workforce.  But few businesses are around to be involved with educators in the day-to-day work of developing and sustaining an enlightened, problem-solving, show-up-on-time, committed-to-learning workforce.  That’s lip service.

            Politicians campaign for office with big educational planks in their platforms.  Then – sometimes at the same time they’re citing the importance of an educated citizenry – they propose or support legislation that adversely affects schools. That’s lip service.

            And let’s not forget the lip service (and lack of foresight) from people in our communities who stand in awe of technology and workplace change while maintaining that the education that they received will be good enough for today’s students.

            So, too, is it lip service when parents talk about tougher standards and more of everything from the schools while abdicating their child-rearing responsibilities.

            Nor can we hold harmless those educators who talk about quality education while dragging their feet on meaningful change initiatives.  They, too, are guilty of delaying progress with lip service.

            Lip service doesn’t improve anything.  It may, in fact, make our schools worse because it misleads the public, damages the educational psyche, and consumes precious time.  This is what makes an old cliché wrong.  Talk is not cheap.

 

FUN (2002)

(We should help our kids laugh more.)

Edward de Bono says that a sense of humor is the highest form of intelligence.  If that’s the case, how can we be opposed to learning that is fun and some occasional laughter?

When people talk about the most vivid memories of their school days, they talk first about their friends, the pranks that they played, going to the dance, one or two members of the school staff, and the time that they outsmarted the principal.  Their memories are laced with things that were fun.

It recent years it seems that we’re in the middle of a campaign designed to purge fun from the educational system.  Too bad.  If the campaign is successful, it’ll take away the things that make memories.

A successful campaign will also destroy something fundamental to the learning process.  Purging fun will inhibit creativity and innovation by dampening the enthusiasm to explore, to daydream, to tinker, to try and fail and try again, and to ask questions that begin with “I wonder why ...?”

While achieving results and attaining goals is important and ought to remain a primary purpose of schools, so too is providing an environment where kids do more than drone through exercises designed to increase their odds of scoring well on a test.

Unfortunately, many schools are now cutting back on music, art, and other subjects that help youngsters develop into well-rounded individuals.  Some schools have even eliminated their playgrounds!  Why?  So more resources can be directed toward subjects that are tested.

Every once in a while, we need to hear kids talk about the really fun things they did in school:  “In art class today we taped paper to the bottom of our desks, and laid on the floor painting above our heads ... and Jill had paint all over her face ... and most of us had more paint running down our arms than on our paper ... and the drawings weren’t very good ... but it was a great way to celebrate Michelangelo's birthday.  It was a blast!”

We all remember the teacher who dressed up to better explain life in colonial times ... or the citizen volunteer who had actually been to the country that we were studying ... or the staff member who knew your name and smiled when he said it.  These things made school fun, and they created a climate that enhanced the learning process.      

The fact that people remember having fun with classmates and laughing

while learning should remind us that all work and no play can lead to a dull education.

When youngsters in the early elementary grades are worried about how well they’ll do on the state assessment test, education may be dangling over the edge.  We should help our kids laugh a little more and hang on to their childhoods a little longer.  They’ll still have plenty of time left over to address the serious side of things.

 

WORKING HARDER (2003)

(But where are we going?)

 

            Without a vision and sense of direction, things derail. This is true for school districts, schools, projects, and grants.  In fact, it’s true for organizations, families, and careers, too. 

            Not having a vision and sense of direction is like loading people into your car and driving off.  Soon, someone will ask, “Where are we going?”  And, that should lead to a follow-up question:  “Why are we going there?”

            Organizationally, these are the two critical questions: “Where are we going?” (or “What are we trying to do?”) and “Why are we going there?”

            When the answers to these questions aren’t apparent, here are five consequences you can anticipate, no matter how hard you work:

            1.  Difficulty communicating with staff and constituents.  When the direction of the organization (aka school district, school, project, grant) can’t be articulated, the result is a continuing need to explain things.  If you’re continually explaining things, you’ll find building support to be a long and difficult process.  And, if you take too long to build support, you’ll have difficulty doing anything. (Airplane pilots would call this the “death spiral.”)  

            2.  False starts.  These are often characterized by a great deal of motion but few results.  Things look like they’re going to fly, but nothing gets off the ground.  (This typically results when the leader takes on a new priority and is perceived to be abandoning the current priority.)   

3.  False hope.  People hope that an initiative – planning, for example – will improve things, but they find their hopes dashed when implementation stalls.  (The primary reason is lack of organizational commitment and too few champions for the initiative.)

            4.  No sustainability.  Change initiatives can’t be sustained unless those involved and affected know what they are supposed to do and why.  (Not so incidentally, people need to understand what’s in the change initiative for them.  Because personal values drive all behavior all the time, people need to know what they will gain or lose personally.)

            5.  The end.  Lack of vision and direction at the beginning leads to the end … quickly.  (Sometimes lack of vision and direction enable the end to come before the beginning!)

            So … here’s a three-question directional checklist to use before you work any harder:

1.  Why are we here?

2.  Where are we going?

3.  What will we have to do to get there?

            Your answers will help you work a lot smarter.

 

PERSON OF THE YEAR (2003)

(And the person of the year is …)

 

            And the person of the year is … the principal!

Yup.  The principal is the person of the year because he (or she) is perfectly positioned to strengthen education and build the support and commitment that result from engaging people.  Everything that we know about effective schools points to the importance of the principal. 

            In fact, research is pretty clear that it’s difficult to have an effective school without an effective principal. (That’s something to remember as we work to enhance student achievement and address the dictates of No Child Left Behind legislation.)

            Effective principals are one reason that public school ratings tend to be quite high at the building level – the place where people interact most directly with the school system.  (The system or district, by the way, tends to score about 40 percentage points lower than the individual schools in the system.)  That’s something we should remember as we work to improve communication and marketing.

            But there is bad news related to the person of the year.  Principals need help.  They need to put down all the balls that they’re juggling and reassess what’s important in the context of radical change.  Should priority one be NCLB … or accreditation … or improving writing skills … or strengthening parent relations?  All of these would be dandy priorities.  In fact, they’re so dandy that we often expect principals to address all of them at once!  Add these priorities to the day-to-day routine and it becomes clear why many principals say that they sometimes don’t know if they’re “comin’ or goin’.”

            Good schools and supportive communities do just fine when they maintain their focus.  Sometimes that’s difficult to do, given all we ask of principals.

            Repairing any fuzzy focus dictates that central office administrators work with principals to answer two key questions: 1) What are we trying to do here? 2) Is there anything we can do to help you?  It also requires that we help principals learn how to leverage their resources and how to effectively multi-task.

This is worth all the time that it takes because 1) working harder isn’t the answer; and, 2) our schools can only be as good as our person of the year.

 

STRENGTHEN OUR THINKING (2003)

(Never go to people with a blank sheet of paper.)

 

            “Let’s go to the ________________ with a blank sheet of paper.” 

You can put whatever you want on the line above – community, staff, business people, politicians …. 

            How many times have you heard someone say this?

            We say that we like to go to people with a blank sheet of paper because, “It will show them that we have no preconceived notions.” or “We won’t bias their thinking.”

            But what we mean is often quite different from what we say.  To be honest, maybe we’re really saying that we have no ideas of our own or that we’re lazy.

            Going with a blank sheet of paper may sound like the right thing to do, but it’s likely to produce disappointing results or lead to unintended consequences.

            Here’s a new rule of thumb:  Don’t go to people with a blank sheet of paper.  Why?  Blank sheets of paper often get filled with things that you can’t or shouldn’t do. They also signal that you’ve abdicated leadership.

            As school people work to continuously strengthen education, they need a way to take broader soundings of students, staff, and community.  “Community engagement” is the moniker some have given to this process.  Still, we shouldn’t do community engagement without being prepared to advance some ideas of our own.

            We know what makes a school effective.  We need to use this research to develop a template for thinking, planning, and engagement.  Then we need to say, “We have done our homework on this topic. Here’s what we discovered.  And, as a result, this is what we think makes sense. What do you think?” 

            Finding out what people think about the template is easy.  Simply ask them what they do and don’t like.

            Then, challenge people to strengthen your thinking. Ask them to tell you how to make your template better.  Ask them to identify what’s missing.

            And then work with them to address their best thinking.

 

BOREDOM (2004)

(“In schools, too many youngsters labor

with worksheets and uninspiring texts.”)

 

            One-third of students – elementary, secondary, urban, suburban, rural, rich, poor, public, private, parochial, and charter – say that they don’t like going to school.  Is it because expectations are too high?  No.  Is it because they don’t like their teachers?  No.  Is it because there are not enough computers? No.  It’s because they’re bored.

            Today’s students have grown up with video games and computers, television and high speed graphics, action games and joysticks. These technological tools are exciting to use and provide immediate feedback – a powerful reinforcer.

            In schools, too many youngsters don’t have access to their familiar technological tools.  Worse, they frequently labor alone in a paper and pencil world characterized by worksheets and uninspiring texts.  In both cases, they have less interaction than they should with their teachers and classmates.

            Delayed feedback also contributes to boredom. Educators forget that today’s students aren’t used to waiting for feedback.  They have grown up in a world of “instant on,” “drive thru,” and “fast.” The common denominator is no waiting.        

            Waiting bores students.  And, when boredom sets in, students – like us – shift their attention elsewhere.  That’s why it is unfortunate that educational feedback almost always takes longer than it should.

            While parents understand that being bored is often little more than a phase that children go through, if the phase stretches from kindergarten to grade twelve, it warrants serious attention. 

            In years past, students could find some refuge from boredom at school.  This doesn’t always hold today.  Now, many kids yearn to be home with their technologies.  That’s where they have fun, interact, get feedback, and learn … just like they supposed to do in schools.

 

SLIPPING STATUS QUO (2004)

(“Last year’s level of funding is a cut.”)

 

            Forget change.  Educators are having trouble maintaining the status quo.  And soon they will start to lie about it.

            When governors report that times are financially rugged and school aid will be maintained at last year’s level, school people frequently react to the news with gratitude and a sense of relief. They concede that last year’s level of funding “might be workable,” and they promise their constituents that they will be able to continue their school district’s “tradition of excellence.”

            The problem is that last year’s level of funding is a cut. 

            Costs in both the public and private sectors go up every year.  When income doesn’t keep pace with costs, school people have three options:  tap the “rainy day” fund (which assumes that there is such a fund), deficit spend (which is illegal in most places), or adjust the budget to balance income and expenditures (which is another way of saying, “Make cuts!”).

            Tapping a rainy day fund is a temporary solution, at best.  Unless revenue quickly and dramatically increases, withdrawals from rainy day funds tend to grow geometrically until the funds are gone.  Then the funding problem becomes at least twice as big as it was in the first place.

            Given that rainy day funding is often ill-advised and that deficit funding is illegal, most schools are forced to make cuts to balance their budgets.  This means that status quo funding is, in fact, a cut.

            And when status quo funding is cut – that is, when the cut is cut – many educators make matters worse by not facing reality. For example, some administrators have been known to react to a reduction in status quo funding by telling parents that, “Cuts will be necessary and painful but our dedicated staff will give 110 percent and things should be okay.”  This is a lie. 

            When funding is reduced and people and programs are cut, things will not be okay.  Even if a staff gives 110 percent, this level of energy cannot be sustained and students eventually will find themselves shortchanged.

            School people would be wise to tell their constituents exactly what status quo funding and financial reductions mean to the educational program.  And, they should explain that rainy day funds can dry up pretty fast. 

            Honesty should be the first response to status quo funding and cuts.  It is, quite simply, the best policy. 

 

ASKING QUESTIONS (2004)

(“Questions define the future.”)

 

            If it is true that answers describe the present while questions define the future, perhaps we should be more inquisitive.

            When we ask questions, we begin shaping our future. When we invite people to join us, we gain ideas that we can use to build consensus for a preferred tomorrow. That, in turn, will make it easier to form coalitions that can turn community visions into realities.

            Psychologists, it seems, always answer a question with a question.  (Q: “Is it okay to feel this way?” A:  “What do you think?”)  Maybe psychologists have discovered something that we should adapt for our use.  (Q: “What should our schools look like in the future?”  A: “What would you like them to look like?”)

            Why not present citizens with a variety of educational scenarios?  Then, why not conduct a series of “Future Forums” in environments that are conducive to thinking?

            Start your Future Forums with some facts and forecasts.  Present your take on the opportunities and challenges that change presents.  Then ask people to raise questions about what they have heard and what they are thinking. 

            Here are a dozen questions to get things started:

                        1. What kind of education do we want for our children?

                        2.  Why is school less fun than it used to be?

                        3.  How can technology leverage the capacity of teachers?

                        4.  What would spur staff creativity, innovation, and risk-taking?

                        5.  Is anyone in the public or private sectors delivering education                                     more effectively than we are? 

                        6.  Why does school have to start so early in the morning?

                        7.  Why can’t our school offer some classes on-line?

                        8.  Is the time that we invest in professional development making

                              a difference?

                        9.  What would be a desirable addition to the educational program?

                       10. What educational program or service should be phased out?

                       11. What are our educational priorities?

                       12. Do we have a vision for our school?

            Answer these questions and you’ll be defining your future.  Best of all, you won’t be doing it alone.

 

 

 

 

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