Lessons about school improvement from a business book

dust jacket of Smart Growth by Edward D. HessI recently read Smart Growth: Building an Enduring Business by Managing the Risks of Growth by Edward D. Hess.

In it I found something I wasn’t expecting: Principles from business that apply to school settings.

Hess’s thesis is that the Wall Street model in which successful businesses grow smoothly and continuously with increased dividends every quarter is just plain nuts. (He phrases it more politely, but that’s the gist.)

Here in bite-size chunks are a few observations Hess makes in Smart Growth that struck me as applicable to schools as well as corporations. Unless otherwise indicated, the visuals are direct quotes from Hess.

Growth depends on people having time and learned knowledge to grow.

Substitute “school improvement” for growth and you have an often-overlooked fact about school reform: It depends on school staff having time and learned knowledge.

Schools can’t improve overnight, nor can they improve based on nothing but intuition.

People "act inconsistently and unpredictably, failing to learn…"

Much of school reform work is based on the assumption that educators will act consistently, predictably, and learn from instruction and mistakes.

That’s an unwise assumption.

Organizational growth is far from a smooth process.

Expecting 2016’s test scores to be better than 2015’s, and 2017’s to be better still?

Don’t count on it.

No matter how you measure it, student learning isn’t a smooth process.

Neither is school improvement.

People make growth complex and difficult School improvement can’t happen without people.

People don’t always cooperate in making school improvement happen.

You’ll save yourself a great deal of frustration if you don’t expect them to.

smartgrowth_t5

Change may carry unexpected negative consequences as well as the expected positive ones.

Innovation often brings something new, which we may find we didn’t really need, at the expense of something old, which we may later find we undervalued.

Quote: For companies to grow, their people must grow.For schools to improve, their people must grow.

Staff must experience intellectual, social, and emotional growth—none of which occurs in orderly, linear fashion.

Quote: People can change only so much, so fast, and so often.

School improvement depends on people. Administrators should remember people have limited ability to change—especially while they are being expected to carry on with other tasks that aren’t changing.

Quote: Any change will generate mistakes.Mistakes happen.

They happen every day while we’re doing routine things.

It’s foolish to assume mistakes won’t happen while schools are trying new procedures, new programs, new curricula.

Quote: Small changes can add up and have a big impact.

To avoid wasting time on trivia, schools often attempt big, broad, across-the-board changes.

All too often staff are not adequately trained for the big, broad, across-the-board change. (Remember New York State’s roll-out of Common Core?)

Time and resources for implementing the big, broad, across-the-board change may also be missing.

Small changes—even one teacher in one classroom implementing a better way of teaching—can add up to a big, broad, across-the-board improvement in a school over a period of time.


As you settle in to your fall teaching routine, which of these observations will help you avoid the frustration of trying to change your school by next Friday?

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Encouraging news for CTE

In the rural area where I live, getting high school graduates “college and career ready” is shorthand for getting graduates ready for college which will lead to a career.

photo collage of photos representing four CTE fields with slogan Hands and brains CTE

Career and Technical Education students who want the career without a four-year college degree get no respect.

Quite the contrary.

CTE students are mocked, bullied, and generally discriminated against even while stories about how adolescents without college degrees are building wildly successful businesses are discussed over coffee at Bob’s Diner.

I read three articles this week that made me think the tide might be turning.

Financial aid for nontraditional students

A month ago Microsoft launched a series of classes in data science through edX.org, the nonprofit online learning destination founded by Harvard University and MIT. The entire Data Science course costs $516.

Data science is are one of the hottest professions, with more job offerings than candidates, and median salary around $90,000.

This week eCampusNews reported a federal Department of Education experimental program will make financial aid available nontraditional students to take courses including coding boot camps and online courses offered by nontraditional training providers in partnership with colleges and universities.

Sounds a bit like the classes Microsoft has started, doesn’t it?

Such aid for nontraditional training would make good, twenty-first century jobs possible for CTE students in my area.

Auto mechanic changes oil on vehicle on lift

CTE can lead to a career in auto mechanics.

MOOC with graded paper option

Shortly after massive open online courses appeared on the educational scene,  providers of the free courses began offering students who participated in discussions and passed multiple choice quizzes the opportunity to buy a certificate as documentation of their experience.

Certificates for MOOCs I’ve taken have cost about $30—and I’ve taken MOOCs that were as good as the best traditional university courses for which I paid considerably more than $30.

Here’s the other thing: Students taking a MOOC don’t need to make any financial investment until they are sure they are going to get through the course.

Now MIT is offering a MOOC with more scholarly twist.

The 12-week course “Introduction to Philosophy: God, Knowledge and Consciousness” will enable students to obtain a verified ID certificate by writing a paper which will be graded and commented upon by professional philosophers. For the MIT philosophy course, the verified certificate is $300.

In effect, students learn for free;  they pay only if they choose to take the final exam.

As competency-based programs become more common in higher education, I think we’ll see more MOOCs on the MIT pattern.

The MOOC format would essentially allow students to take a required course in a subject that’s difficult for them more than once, from different instructors from different universities, until they felt confident enough to do the exit activity.

That could be a boon for CTE students going after two-year degree in a competency-based program, for example.

Young woman with blonde ponytail lies under truck in parking lot making a quick repair.

CTE skills also come in handy in everyday crises.

Expanded CTE concurrent enrollment

To strengthen and expand dual and concurrent enrollment and early college high school options in Perkins-supported career technical education (CTE) programs, introduced Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced the Workforce Advance Act.

Strengthening concurrent enrollment programs for CTE students is essential if they are to get advanced training.

Most concurrent enrollment courses in rural areas are taught on high school campuses by high school teacher, but CTE students from those schools are often bused to regional centers for CTE courses.

CTE instructors there may not be qualified to teach non-CTE courses, such as English composition, that their students would be required to take their first semester of college.

The Workforce Advance Act would allow school districts to use funding to support teachers pursuing the credentials needed to teach these courses in their high schools, helping to remove a barrier to providing access to college credit.

Finally, the Workforce Advance bill would allow the Department of Education to use national CTE activities to help identify successful methods and best practices for providing dual or concurrent enrollment programs and early college high school career and technical education opportunities.

Finding out the best ways to provide both CTE  and general education credits is important.

As I explain in another post, assuming the CTE students’ high school background is good enough that they don’t need to take remedial courses (a big assumption) first semester,  students would be taking primarily general education requirements.

Through dual enrollment, the academically oriented students usually get those requirements out of the way, but the CTE student may not receive that benefit.

I don’t expect any of these developments to earn CTE students the respect and support they deserve or help them acquire the skills their home communities desperately need, but I’m pleased to see a few signs that the issues are beginning to be noticed.


Acknowledgements. Thanks to the folks at Scoville-Meno in Bainbridge for letting me take photos on the shop floor. And I hope the woman with the ratchet wrench who was making a quick repair to her truck in the municipal parking lot got to her destination safely.

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Why testing methods should matter to teachers

laptop computer with keys spelling COMPOSE highlighted. Banner says "Compose here."
Ignore for a moment the issue of whether standardized tests carry too much weight in education.

Do you want to handicap your students unnecessarily on standardized tests?

Probably not.

Steve Graham, who has researched and written extensively on writing in schools, says his research shows that students who take writing tests on a computer do better than those who answered in handwriting, but that is true only if the students were experienced in writing at the computer.

He writes:

A student’s mastery of the method of testing matters. For students with little experience, computer assessments underestimate their writing achievement.

(Handwriting that’s not legible produces a similar underestimation of writing skill.)

It’s 25 years since the first website went online: It’s time every student is fluent at composing at the keyboard.

It’s perfectly OK to have students use pen and paper to doodle their way to a plan for writing if that’s how they’re comfortable, but you need to have students practice composing at the keyboard regularly. I recommend practice at least once a week.

And, yes, you need to require keyboard composition even if you teach art or agriculture: This isn’t just an English teacher thing.

 

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When I looked him up online

A recent post by Eric Stoller about why “getting Twitter matters” to higher education’s student affairs folks was being shunted around Twitter yesterday morning.

The nub of Stoller’s argument is this:

Laptop computer screen bearing quote "Digital capabilities / literacies are important. They are connected to employability, revolution, activism, teaching, learning, communication, engagement, etc."

As it happens, I’ve been thinking about the importance of digital capabilities/literacies a bit lately.

My local school district recently hired a new superintendent, Timothy R. Ryan,  who got exactly two sentences on page three of the school district’s June newsletter.

When I read the news, I did what I always do when “introduced” to people I’m likely to meet in person: I looked Ryan up online.

A few weeks later, I was chatting with a stranger. Before long the conversation got around to the local school.

The woman told me about a big hassle she’d had with the administrator who didn’t want her kid to be an exchange student, and her futile attempts to get anyone to respond to her concerns.

She concluded by saying she hoped the new superintendent would turn things around.

“But I have my doubts,” she said, “because I looked him up online and—”

I completed the sentence for her: “And he doesn’t have a digital presence.”

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Filed under School PR, School-community relations

Define ‘good paying jobs’

If Hillary Clinton loses the 2016 election, it could well be because she defines “good paying jobs” differently than a significant chunk of the electorate.

Last night as I watched as Clinton accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, I was struck by her implied definition of the term “good paying jobs.”

She never defined the term, but it was clear from the context in which she used it—”clean energy jobs” and “advanced manufacturing” for example—that she was talking about jobs that didn’t exist last century, jobs that were just getting a good foothold when the economy plunged into recession in 2008.

I don’t believe the angry, white American males who support Donald Trump  (or their female counterparts) would consider those “good paying jobs.”

Clinton’s “good paying jobs” require people to acquire new skills and to keep updating their skills routinely.

I suspect the angry, white males think of “good paying jobs” as those a high school graduate can walk in off the street and learn to do in a couple of weeks—and keep doing for the next half century with regular, substantial pay raises.

Whatever you think of Hillary Clinton, you ought to think what “good paying jobs” means in your students’ communities.

If the definition favors those who stop learning at the end of formal schooling, you have some educating to do.

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Above all, do no harm

Writing teachers who have worked with me over the years have heard me say many times that above all they should do no harm.

Reading a blog post by leadership and management expert Dan Rockwell recently inspired me to write about four ways writing teachers can do no harm.

#1. Don’t allow nagging issues to persist.

If Morgan and Mahil enter eighth grade unable to tell whether the sentence they wrote calls for its or it’s, that’s not your fault.

If Morgan and Mahil leave eighth grade still unable to tell whether the sentence they wrote calls for its or it’s, that is your fault.

Give students a list of three serious writing mechanics errors they habitually make in their writing in the first month of a school year.

Insist each student master each of those three, serious, habitual errors before the last month of the school year.

(The simple way to insist is to refuse to give a grade higher than a C to any paper that contains one of the student’s habitual errors.)

#2. Don’t  keep changing the objective.

Learning to write an informative/explanatory text is different from learning to write a narrative.

Don’t keep changing the writing objective just because you’re bored with the students’ writing.

#3. Don’t jump in to save the day.

Trial and error is a powerful teaching tool.

Let students make mistakes.

Then ask, “Where’s the first place in the writing process you could have done something different that would have prevented this from happening?”

#4. Don’t penalize mistakes during practice.

Learning to write is a bit like making pie dough: Even when they know the principles, it takes a long time for most folks to get a feel for the thing.

While students are getting a feel for writing, praise what they are doing right: turning in their work on time, not giving up, putting effort into planning, or reducing the number of their serious habitual errors.

What would you add to the list?

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Filed under Teaching writing

Summer teacher improvement programs

For teachers, summer is not just the season for vacations. It’s also the season for workshops and conferences, for reading and reflecting.

Many summer teacher activities show up in my Twitter feed.

I’ve been struck in the last couple weeks by what kinds of things teachers are learning about in their organized professional development activities.

Most of the teacher training sessions seem to fall into one of two categories. Either they focus on

  • tools (typically technology tools), or
  • on what might be termed “soft pedagogy skills.”

Soft pedagogy skills are such things as flipping a classroom, teaching mindfulness, or helping students develop grit.

I don’t see many teacher summer activities directed toward developing better

  • teaching objectives
  • teaching skills
  • teaching materials
  • teaching strategies

for specific subjects.

I find that troublesome.

From an economic standpoint, I understand it’s more sensible to offer programs that draw 150 people than programs that will draw only five when you’re hiring presenters who charge $3,000 a presentation.

From an education perspective, however, I wonder whether teachers might not have a greater impact on student learning if a few people who teach the same subjects at the same grade level were encouraged to work together on shared problems.

The small group could draw on local people as resources for such things as workplace uses of content from the teachers’ subject area.

The group could also invite teachers in training to participate, which could be good for the trainees and might also help the local school attract new teachers.

Anyone have a program such as I envision in their school or region? Please share your experience in the comments.

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Is college worth its cost?

The value of college in light of its ever-increasing costs is a hotly debated topic these days.

A blog post at InVisionApp.com on the topic of the monetary value of a higher ed degree caught my eye.

InVision, which describes itself as “a prototyping, collaboration & workflow platform,”  commissioned a research  study to find out, among other things the role education—both formal and informal—plays for designers today.  Researchers surveyed 1,650 designers from 65 countries:

The biggest takeaway we uncovered? Designers are split nearly 50/50 in terms of being self-taught and having a formal design background. 51% have a formal design education while 49% are self-taught. Makes sense when you consider the pace at which the design industry is evolving!

The study revealed having a higher education degree gave a salary advantage to the person with a degree:

As it turns out, salaried designers with formal training earn about 5% more on average than their self-taught counterparts: $78,061 compared to $74,657 annually.

That salary figure for those with formal training appears to lump all those with formal training together, whether they had an associate degree or doctorate.

bar chart of relative salaries of designers with different education levelsThe survey also revealed that the designers without formal post-secondary education skewed heavily male:

Women are more likely than men to have a higher degree, with about 72% of women holding a bachelor’s versus 56% of men. 22% of male designers hold no advanced degree, compared to just 7% of female designers.

Although all sorts of conclusions can be drawn from the InVision data, I’m struck by the potential for good paying jobs in design potentially available for the male high school students who absolutely, positively do not want to go to college.

They may not make as much over their careers as the folks with the bachelors’ and masters’ degrees, but neither do they have those bachelors’ and masters’ degree debts.

It might be worthwhile for high school teachers and guidance counselors to look at design and other fields in which kids with few resources but a keen interest can develop in-demand skills without going to college.


You can get a copy of the report in exchange for your email address here.

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Filed under Post-secondary education

Which is easier: teaching or learning?

student before classroom world map. Overprint with quote "I love to teach," Angela said. It's easier than learning."

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June 24, 2016 · 2:45 pm

Writing: The fortieth part of literacy?

Drawing of man and student is on cover of Literacy handbook for CTE teachersThe students who filled my English 101 classes over the years have been in the career and technical education arena.

Many of them are very smart folks, but they don’t know how to apply their smarts to writing.

While looking this week for resources for teaching such students, I discovered an teacher handbook called How Do You Expect Me To Teach Reading and Writing? which appears to be prepared for North Carolina CTE teachers.

Of the 82 pages in the handbook, only pages 15 and 16 are devoted exclusively to teaching writing.

Some of the literacy strategies discussed in section 4 of the handbook could be used in teaching topics related to writing; however, I didn’t see any strategies for actually teaching writing.

Is it just me, or does anyone else think it’s off balance to devote just 1/40 of a handbook about teaching reading and writing to teaching writing?

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Filed under Teaching writing