Friday, February 19, 2010

Instructional Facilitators OpEd

I read an editorial in today's Casper Star-Tribune on instructional facilitators (IFs). I am supportive of the editorial, as it promotes the continued use of IFs. The author also has some ways to improve the program "so as to document its value."

One of the the suggestions is to "more clearly define and standardize their duties." The rationale for this is that IFs have different duties and roles in schools across the state. While I agree with the author's assertion that they would like to "see an emphasis on improving teachers' interactions with students in the classroom," I would debate the merits of having all IFs performing the same duties in each school.

The needs of schools varies across the state and it is the ability of IFs to have the flexibility to do what is necessary to help teachers improve that makes the program such a benefit. To limit this flexibility is akin to making the funding model, currently a block grant that allows districts to flexibly spend their funding in needed areas, into a categorical grant that forces all districts to spend their dollars similarly, regardless of the needs of students. But that is a conversation for another day.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Malcolm Gladwell presented at the AASA National Conference on Education this past week. His topic was capitalization of education. If you don't know Gladwell, he is the author of three New York Times bestsellers, Blink, The Tipping Point, and Outliers.

In his speech, Gladwell used the story of Michael Oher, the National Football League player whose life is the subject of a book and movie titled The Blind Side. One of the conversations with Oher revolved around the number of athletes in his hometown of Memphis that had the talent to play in the NFL. According to Gladwell, Oher and others claim that there were at least five athletes capable of playing at the NFL level who never went on to play college football. Gladwell used this analogy to speak of the capitalization rate of football players to be 1 in 6 and then went on to talk about the capitalization rate in education.

While discussing some of the barriers and constraints that exist to students achieving their full potential, Gladwell brought up institutional bias. He used the Czech national hockey team to illustrate his point. A majority of those players had birthdays in the first three months of the year. Why? Because the cut-off date for playing in certain leagues was January 1. Those players born at right after a cut-off date would be older and more mature than those born later in the year.

What does that have to do with education? The same thing could be said of students. At early grade levels, where development takes place at a much greater rate than later, students born after the cut-off date for school enrollment could be substantially older than those born right before. This could affect achievement and provide a structural disadvantage to certain students. I found the concept intriguing and will be looking for further research to verify if this is indeed the case.

If such an institutional bias exists, what can schools do to remove this barrier? One method might be further differentiation of instruction so that students would enter at various times during the year and exit when they were ready, not at an arbitrary timeframe such as May or June. Of course, schools and states that fund those schools may have to restructure to allow for such a change. It would be interesting to see if such a change could take place.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


It is very nice in Phoenix for the AASA National Conference on Education. Although I heard a local coming out of the convention center exclaim that it was "freezing" out, for a northerner, it is a balmy 70 degrees. (Of course it was morning, so it might have been a "brisk" 60.)

I attended a couple of sessions this morning which caused me to reflect again on the process of asking questions as a method of transformation. In their session on central office transformation, University of Washington professor Mike Copeland, Atlanta assistant superintendent Kathy Augustine, and Springfield, MA superintendent Alan Ingram discussed the importance of the central office in helping transform schools. Although the presentation was looking at urban districts and the large number of schools in each, there were pieces that could be used by all districts, large or very small.

One of the takeaways I got centered around the monthly meetings that superintendent Beverly Hall and her senior administrative team hold with principals. During this time, the focus is on data, what's going well, and barriers that may exist to improving schools. The principals talk and senior leadership listens, then goes forward to investigate reasons behind the barriers that may exist.

In another session, Western Illinois professor Carol Webb discussed several protocols leaders can use to make meetings more productive and focus the discussion on instruction rather the managerial minutiae that sometimes get in the way of more important items.

So, in other words, ask questions, then reflect on those questions to provide direction for improvement.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

TED 2010

Okay, so you might think that Seth Godin is paying me to advertise his blog on this one. I found another great article on his site that discusses the TED conference and "abstract numerical thinking." According to Godin, abstract numerical thinking is an important skill that educated people should have.

Now, I know you may be thinking that I am only saying this because as a mathematician (sort of), I enjoy numbers. However, the ability to work with numbers in one's head also helps a person be able to think of alternatives to problems he/she may encounter. So, if you get a chance, listen to a TED speaker or two and/or read a good book. They both help increase the "manipulation of ideas."

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Hunter or Farmer?

I read an interesting blog post by Seth Godin in which he used a metaphor about hunters and farmers to describe marketing strategy. One of the examples he uses is that of students and how we force students who have "hunting" skills to live in a "farming" environment. Interesting.

Friday, February 05, 2010

ESEA reauthorization

Here is a link to a speech Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave concerning the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Some of the quotes I found of interest (and we'll see what happens when it does get going):

"One of our goals with reauthorization is to give local educators flexibility to do what's best for children."

"We will be creating a limited federal role in education."

"We want an accountability system that factors in student growth, progress in closing achievement gaps, proficiency towards college and career-ready standards, high school graduation and college enrollment rates."

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

In Praise of Education Conference

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Wyoming School University Partnership sponsored "In Praise of Education" conference. Among the many outstanding discussions was the opening panel session entitled Why Institutions in a Democracy Matter. The panel explored Hugh Heclo's book, On Thinking Institutionally and the concept of institutional thinking was discussed.

According to the panelists, the author contrasts two baseball players, one an example of institutional thinking who plays the game the way it is supposed to be played and another more interested in individual accolades and personal achievements. The conversation raised a question for me around the differences between those who think at an institutional or global level and those who think on a more individual level.

A tension exists between these two types of thought and resolution is found through conversation on the issues. A superintendent's panel that convened at the National Network for Educational Renewal (NNER) annual conference this fall discussed this topic and summed it up. "The tension between individual and institutional thinking is resolved through conversation and dialogue" is the paraphrased version of the summarization.

One of the important aspects of both the NNER and the Partnership is the opportunity to discuss high level topics in-depth. Without these opportunities, educators and leaders may not have the variety of opinion or expertise to reflect fully on an issue. The foundation of good decision making is getting pertinent information into the dialogue. I am thankful for the opportunity to participate in the many conversations around education. I would encourage you to learn more about the NNER and the Partnership.