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School staff focus on curriculum alignment, differentiated instruction, professional development, college and career readiness, standards, and academic interventions. Is it possible that schools can lose their focus on customer service? Customers include families, community members, and all guests who visit the school website or schoolhouse.
Customer service involves the front office staff, classroom teachers, teacher assistants, custodians, counselors, and all staff members. How are customers treated when they enter your school? Ask your school staff, “What does it mean to go the extra mile for the customer?” Do families feel like the front office staff answers the phone in a professional manner? Do teachers fire off emails when they are upset with students or parents? How do schools analyze the way they are treating customers?
Six Ways To Pour Some Sugar On The Customer:
The school website is the new front door. Families and community members make a judgment about your school before they arrive in the front office. Is your school website customer friendly? If you have a focus on technology integration, does your school website look like it was created in 1990? Does your website offer a welcome message or invite families to visit the school? If Open House was the biggest event between 1980-2000, then the school website opens your school to more than the all of the guests who attended Open House during that 20 year span. Your school is connected with the world. What kind of message are you sending? Would a family in Florida view your site and want to buy a house in your community, based on the information and message on your website?
Customer service involves phone skills, email etiquette, communication skills, and the way the customer is treated when they spend time at your school. Which restaurants come to mind when you think of outstanding customer service? Have you ever had poor customer service at a hotel? Have you ever visited a church and felt like none of the members knew you were in attendance? Customer service is easy to identify, especially when we are the recipient of poor customer service. When families have a bad experience at your school, they will spread the word throughout the community and through social media. As communities build more charter schools, private schools, and home school organizations, customers will walk rather than talk.
The media may promote your school once or twice a year. Administrators and teachers can promote the school on a weekly basis by posting on a school or teacher blog. Pictures from field trips, class projects, community service, guest speakers, and student awards can assist in communicating with families. Most blogs allow for families to forward the message to their family and friends via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Blogs also allow for two-way communication. The traditional method of communicating with families was a flyer in a second grade student’s backpack. With a blog, the school can communicate with families and families can post comments or ask questions about the event before their child arrives home.
Several schools host a Principal’s Coffee Hour once monthly. There is usually a topic that the principal or a guest speaker shares with families. The highlight of any Principal’s Coffee Hour is the time that families are able to share their opinions, ask questions, and brainstorm ways to support all students. Coffee Hour provides a monthly time for two-way communication. Parents will provide you with their opinions and they will feel respected because the school provided a forum for adult conversation about their most prized possession, their child. How is your school promoting two-way communication with families and stakeholders?
Twitter allows home-to-school and school-to-home communication. Families can receive updates from the school. While Twitter may not work for all families, it is a great tool. Most schools see social media as one form of communication. The sign in front of the school reaches some families, the school website reaches others, and a flyer may still work for families without a computer or a Smartphone. The reason I feel like schools should consider Twitter is because it allows families to forward or reply to each tweet. If you have ever been in a relationship with someone you realize the importance of two-way communication. A strong relationship between families and school staff will improve your customer service and customer satisfaction.
As the number of people with Smartphones increases, your school should consider a school app. “Smartphone vendors shipped 216.2 million units in the first quarter of 2013, which accounted for 51.6 percent of the worldwide mobile phone market” (Bean, April 16, 2013). If the school website is the new front door in 2013, then the school app may be the new front door of the future. An app can combine all of the items highlighted in this article. A school app may not be nice to have, but the next step in your communication and customer-service plan.
Most schools have a professional development plan, school improvement plan, and a curriculum map. I have rarely seen a school’s customer service plan. When it comes to service, if you fail to plan you may be planning to fail. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, said, “We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.” There are only two kinds of schools; those with outstanding customer service and those without outstanding customer service. On a scale of 1-10, how would you rank the customer service at your school?
Questions for School Staff to Consider
1. Does our school provide outstanding customer service?
2. What are our weaknesses? What action steps do we need to take to improve?
3. What are the characteristics of outstanding customer service?
(Share your own experiences in school and non-school settings)
4. What can we measure every 18 weeks (semester) to analyze our efforts to provide customer service?
5. Do we have a school plan outlining what customer service looks like?
(Think Chick-fil-A; It doesn’t matter if the manager or a teenager provides you with service. There is consistency within and across stores).
Normally, I am not one to write on controversial issues, but there is freedom in the provocative, and the time is now (or yesterday) for action in education. Although this speaks to one state's journey through the massive budget cuts and the looming additional injustices, I think that most educators in the nation have experienced a degree of this. I humbly share my thoughts with legislators considering budgets for next school year and the community of ASCD advocates:
How will your child suffer? We must stop this ridiculous abomination of a proposed budget now. The incessant and continuous hit that education has taken in the last 5 years has been beyond reason. However, this year's proposals fall just shy of criminal. As a voter, a parent of children in the school system and a school principal, I have many perspectives to offer. First, as a voter: We elect officials into office who we believe will stand for the things that we hold close to heart. Public schools are the birthplace of some of the best minds in America. What does it mean to be American? Please ask yourself this, as our elected representative. Americans value critical opinions and diversity but stand united when someone attacks our home or our community. To my esteemed elected officials, I say: We are under attack. Make no mistake... this is a war of interests. We must not let the future of our children and ultimately our country falter to other priorities. We know that you are under pressure to invest in the political interests that got you into office, but we beg you not to sacrifice our children, your children or the future of our great nation in doing so. As a parent: We cannot provide quality schools without adequate funding to do so. Should we settle for mediocrity? Would you settle for mediocrity for your own child? Absolutely not. I want my children to get access to teachers with skills that will challenge their minds and inspire their hearts. Teachers deserve pay worthy of the countless hours they spend planning. Let Principals hold them accountable to that. I want my children to have adequate support in their classes as they are acclimated to the rigor of public schools. Teacher Assistants provide this support. They are educators, advocates and probably teach your child in a center or reading group. I want my child to have access to the equipment, books and materials needed for 21st century learning. As a school principal: Is the public aware that kids in most counties are still using outdated books, so teachers have to develop their own curriculum materials to match the new standards? And what justice do we pay teachers when they do this with a smile on their face and protect our children from the perils of society? We cut their support (TAs), cut their pay (furlough), cut their money for supplies (instructional money), increase their class size (class size waiver elimination), increase their insurance premiums and cut their access to resources and support (district funding going to charter/private schools). Teacher Assistants are not just secretaries for the teacher, and I wonder if the public realizes that. They are instructional assistants... they help your children and grandchildren learn. Also, as a school administrator, one of the ways in which we can provide a duty-free lunch for teachers (which is a state requirement) is through the use of teacher assistants. Similarly, I wonder if the public understands the correlation between effective instruction and the number of students in a class. There is an inverse relationship between time for critical learning and the number of students in a class. This state and this nation is in a dire place of certain demise, if we cannot commit to providing safe, quality schools for our children today, so they can solve nationwide and worldwide problems tomorrow. With the proposed legislation about class size, harsh cuts to public schools (again), elimination of Assistants, sequestration at the federal level, and funneling the leftover pocket change to charter/private schools rather than public schools... I must ask the question... how will your child suffer?
When analyzing their school’s organizational context, principals cannot underestimate the unpredictability of the long-term future of the system. Marginalized populations within the school act as a recessive system undermining the efforts of the dominant, legitimate system. The future of the school emerges from interactions within and between the recessive and the dominant systems. A new paradigm that recognizes and makes meaning of the dynamic, nonlinear versus linear nature of the processes and interactions of these two subsystems would help protect principals from unreasonable long-term planning, unproductive and unmanaged conflict, innovative but misguided agents, and wasted time due to superficial work and restructuring efforts not based on emergence (Bower, 2006; Stacey, 1996).
The dominant paradigm rosily sees success in stability, predictability, and carefully strategic plans (Stacey, 1996). “Predictions are nice, if you can make them. But the essence of science lies in explanation, laying bare the fundamental mechanisms of nature” (Waldrop, 1992, p. 39). Educational complexity is not different. Researchers have to look at explaining how education works with the knowledge that it may not result in predictability since education is emergent based on too many factors to mathematically analyze.
History and past pedagogy is important to creating effective high-performing, high-poverty schools (HP2S), but vast changes in the sociocultural capital available to students in this decade make research of previous decades null or irrelevant. Even within the same time period, findings in one context will not be generalizable to another setting. Failing schools that are trying to transform cannot hope to perfectly implement what other successful schools have accomplished because of the unpredictability of complex systems (Barr & Parrett, 2007; Berliner, 2002; Brady, retrieved October 22, 2007; Church, 2005).
Strategic planning in complex environments results in rigid processes such as goal setting and action plans that restrict emergence. Educational institutions should allow for a more flexible process that takes into account causal relationships (Gilstrap, 2005). Small fluctuations would have a harder time permeating multiple boundaries within similar structures across a flattened hierarchy. This redundancy provides stability, robustness, and resilience against small environmental fluctuations (Stacey, 1996).
What is the most important factor that contributes to student success? Teaching.
The traditional structure of and approach to education in the U. S. treats education as complicated versus complex. Educational scholars seem confused about the differences between complicated, complex, and chaotic. Complicated systems consist of many static, connected, dependent parts more mechanical in nature to perform a specific function such as “teaching”. Many parts of the school day are mechanical and require ordinary management skills to maintain. Complex systems include layers of shifting, changing, overlapping agents and systems more organic in nature dedicated to learning and surviving in a specific environment. Instruction, curriculum, public relations, etc. interact in a complex, holistic manner and require emergent leadership to sustain (Barr & Parrett, 2007).
Metaparadigms, macropatterns, and archetypes allow school leaders to focus on the emergence of success from HP2S instead of reductionist practices by homogonous affluent schools in a sort of “backwards design of leadership” reminiscent of the classic by Wiggins and McTighe (Church, 2005). Complexity does not have a list or recipe, but acts as a framework or archetype of what happens during an educational cycle around a strange attractor (Stacey, 1996). “Any given moment the novelty of experience and the multiplicity of alternatives will be organising(sic) themselves thereby making learning not a rationally deduced abstraction but a meaningful encounter expressed in terms of students’ literally making sense out of their own experiences” (Semetsky, 2006, p. 33).
A high performance team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are equally committed to a common purpose, goals, and working approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable. Members of the team are deeply committed to one another’s personal growth and success (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993).
As I observe classrooms and visit schools, I am always looking for high performing teams. I am impressed by a fourth grade teacher who can differentiate, analyze assessment data, lead professional development, teach students to think outside the box, and integrate technology on a daily basis. However, I am in awe of high performing teams. In The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork, Maxwell (2001) wrote, “Communication increases commitment and connection; they in turn fuel action. If you want your team to perform at the highest level, the people on it need to be able to talk and to listen to one another” (p. 197). Does your professional learning team communicate on a regular basis? Do you plan to meet daily, weekly, or monthly? How often do you need to meet in order to make certain all students learn the essential learning outcomes?
High performing teams use the following strategies to take students to the next level:
Team norms are the foundation of a high performing team. Some teams feel like they can operate without norms, but conflict or a dysfunctional team member highlight the purpose of norms. When teams operate with norms, each member of the team understands how to communicate, how shared decisions will be handled, when to arrive for meetings, and how to professionally disagree. I have observed teams that developed norms five years ago, but they fail to revisit the team norms. When a new teacher moves from a different grade level or from another school district, it is difficult for the teacher to participate as a team member because the team norms are akin to living and working in a different country or culture. Solution Tree has developed a free online resource which supports the development of team norms titled, Developing Norms.
A precursor to improvement is a clear understanding of the goal. Educators often enter a new nine weeks and don’t pause to reflect on the current reality (i.e., Where are we? Where are we going? How will we get there?). If six eighth grade science teachers each develop their own goals and learning outcomes, is it likely that students will end up at the same place when they enter ninth grade science? Blanchard (2007) contends, “Goal setting is the single most powerful motivational tool in a leader’s toolkit” (p. 150). A school without clearly defined goals is like a ship without a rudder; it lacks direction and a slight wind could easily blow it off course (Wiles, 2009).
Teams set goals, companies strive to meet sales or production goals, and successful individuals monitor their diet, finances, time management, life-long learning, leadership growth, and other established goals. If school teams are aiming for student achievement, then they must become crystal clear on how to help each member of their school district meet the goal. DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker (2008) wrote, “One of the most pressing questions a school must consider as it attempts to build the collaborative culture of a PLC is not, ‘Do we collaborate?’ but rather, ‘What do we collaborate about?’” (p. 28). A lack of clarity on intended results is a barrier to growth and continuous improvement in schools.
One strategy that is overlooked in schools is the power of small wins. When I memorized 1 x 1 through 12 x 12, my second grade teacher gave me a poster autographed by a Razorback basketball player (talk about a small win)! Memorizing my multiplication facts did not make me a mathematician, but my teacher took time to recognize the small win each time a new student reached the goal. When I played high school basketball, the coach would require each member of the team to make ten free throws before we left practice. This was a small win and it was psychological. New York Times bestselling author Daniel Coyle wrote, “Perhaps most important, the “small-win” approach is aligned with the way your brain is built to learn: chunk by chunk, connection by connection, rep by rep. As John Wooden said, “Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts” (April, 2012).
School teams are implementing common formative assessments, the Common Core State Standards, technology integration, reading programs, literacy across the curriculum, character education programs, state initiatives, and more! Most teachers understand the importance of celebrating a small win with students. We need to use this same strategy when we work with our colleagues. Small wins are identified and celebrated by high performing school teams!
Meetings have become a burden to teachers. If a school still operates where each teacher believes, “These are my students and those are your students....” – Then, it will be difficult for teachers to see why they need to meet as a team. High performing teacher teams realize, “These are our students and this is our community.” High performing teams have a meeting agenda, clear meeting outcomes, and action items. If team members are arriving at each meeting asking what are we going to discuss today, then it won’t be a very good use of time.
Some of the best ideas at my elementary school come from team meetings. A collaborative team of teacher leaders, motivated by preparing all students for the next level, is a powerful force to reckon with. This is the scene that every taxpayer should demand from a public school. Schmoker (2005) wrote, “It starts with a group of teachers who meet regularly as a team to identify essential learning, develop common formative assessments, analyze current levels of achievement, set achievement goals, share strategies, and then create lessons to improve upon those levels.” That is the kind of school I want to send my children to.
Essential Learning Outcomes
Effective teams develop and agree to provide all students with essential learning outcomes. In the absence of learning outcomes, students receive a disjointed curriculum experience. Why do some teams skip this step if it is such an important part of teaching and learning? From my observations, developing essential learning outcomes involves trust, conflict, debate, time, and the ability to come to consensus. If teams lack trust or don’t schedule a weekly meeting, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to identify essential learning outcomes. Swan (2010) wrote, "Learning outcomes refer to the skills, knowledge, and attributes students should have upon completion of a particular course or program of study."
Wiggins and McTighe (2005), wrote, “In the absence of a learning plan with clear goals, how likely is it that students will develop shared understandings on which future lessons might build” (p. 21)? If teachers claim to operate as a professional learning team, but they lack clearly defined learning outcomes, then students will experience a disjointed curriculum. If goal-setting is important in athletics and on business teams, then professional learning teams must take time to see how the absence of essential learning outcomes can interfere with the team’s common purpose. Does your team have essential learning outcomes for each nine weeks or semester?
Sports fans love to analyze the greatest teams of all time. The New York Yankees have won more World Series than any team in baseball (27). UCLA men’s basketball team has won more NCAA National Championships than any other college basketball team in history (11). Ten of those championships were won under legendary coach John Wooden. The Pittsburgh Steelers have won more Super Bowls than any other NFL team (6). What makes a great team? Great teams are made of great individuals. Mark Sanborn outlines the “4 C’s of a Great Team Member (1:44).”
If you entered the field of education to make a difference, ask how your individual strengths can benefit the entire team. Michael Fisher (2010) wrote, "If your schools/districts are made up primarily of those with an ‘island mentality,’ then they need to join the continent.” High performing teams are needed in our schools. Students deserve our best and we can work more efficiently if we turn our school teams into high performing teams.
I just spent the morning viewing a livestream from an Education Forum from Education Week. For those who may be unaware a livestream is a live transmission of an event over the Internet. This was a forum that recognized Education Leaders. It was titled Leaders To Learn From 2013. I think what Education Week did was great and I hope not to diminish their contribution. I do have some observations that I would like to share.
My friend and colleague Kyle Pace, @kylepace, was the person who drew me to this forum. Kyle is a connected educator known to tens of thousands of educators as a collaborative, connected educator who engages people with knowledge and information in the realm of technology in education. If any educator deserves an award for collaborative leadership, Kyle would top my list of candidates. It is a well-deserved recognition.
What struck me about the other award winners recognized for their leadership accomplishments that other educators are supposed to learn from was that we as an education community have not heard from them before? I realize that not all educators are connected through social media. It also seems to me as an observer of social media in education that it is often more difficult for Administrators to connect than teachers. There are reasons for that, both real and imagined, and I understand that. It would seem to me however, that if collaboration is part of a reason for recognition, the award winners should demonstrate some proficiency in modern collaboration as educators.
I also attended a Discovery Education forum recently where a number of Superintendents were recognized. When asked about their professional Social media involvement and collaboration, each claimed Twitter accounts and some claimed to have blogs. Of course sitting with Josh Stumpenhorst, @stumpteacher, we were able to quickly fact-check each of their claims to discover that most of them rarely tweeted and few had Blogs.
In a time when mobile devices can vet any speaker in a few seconds, people should not speak out of hand. In addition to education leaders, all leaders should get the fact that they can, and will be held more accountable for what they do compared to what they say. The world and information distribution has changed. Their failure to recognize that fact is testament to their relevance in a technology-driven society.
I have made my views on sharing as a professional responsibility known in many previous posts. A question from Dean Shareski really summed it up for me in regard to professional collaboration. What would we say about a doctor who found a cure for cancer or even a partial pathway to that end, but failed to share it with medical colleagues?
If educators are doing things in a better way, why are they not collaborating using the methods of today? Educators may not have the Journal of the American Medical Association, but we do have Twitter and we do have Blogs. I am tired of educators who espouse technology for everyone else, but fail to employ it for themselves and their profession.
Many Administrators use the Internet to vet out teaching candidates. They get to Google information about individuals that they are legally precluded from asking about in an interview. If that has become the standard then let’s have at it. We should look at everyone’s digital footprint including administrators. What is their educational philosophy as it is stated in the digital world? What does their Professional Learning Network include? What is it they have collaborated on in the Social media world? How effective are they in the very collaboration skills that they claim to have? How reflective are they based on their public blog? Do they hold to their principles in their public reflections?
We are moving forward in the way we access and obtain information. If an administrator has not contributed and that information is not obtainable, then that may be an indication of ability, or relevance, or both. At the very least it should be a red flag. I am not suggesting that any administrator who is not on social media is a Luddite. I am suggesting that the best leaders in an age of technology are those who understand it as a result of effectively using it, as well as modeling it for those who follow. We need to consider relevant collaborative skills as a requisite for administrative positions if we have hope for changing the system in positive ways.
NOTE: I recently posted a commentary on ASCD Edge (co-authored with Jay McTighe) identifying ten research-based beliefs about teaching and learning and their implications. #7 was:
Attitudes and values mediate learning by filtering experiences and perceptions. Therefore, teachers should understand how student attitudes and values influence learning and help students build positive attitudes towards learning.
This commentary elaborates on that belief, suggests its importance, and describes more ways to implement it.
In America, especially during the progressive education era and the “open education” years, building positive attitudes towards learning, motivating students, creating interest in learning, making learning relevant, and yes, even promoting the joy of learning were important aspects of educational planning, development and practice. The belief during these time periods was that building curiosity, expanding student interests, and making learning relevant and interesting would promote active student inquiry, build on a natural human inclination to learn, and help create an educational environment in which students would WANT to learn.
Unfortunately, this emphasis has been mostly lost, even negated, in the push for teaching “the basics”, often through worksheets and drills, and then with the more recent focus on passing high risk standardized tests, teaching skill based reading and math, and cutting back on “frills”, such as the arts and social studies. Today, it is hard to find schools where curiosity, interest in learning, being motivated to learn, and making learning joyful are as important as doing well on standardized tests, taking four years of English, or passing AP courses. These goals are also missing from any meaningful discussion about what we want to accomplish with our students, what we will assess, and what kind of learner we want to graduate.
Yet, if we really want to encourage students to learn, grow, succeed and achieve in a 21st century world, if we truly want them to be lifelong learners in a world of rapid change, social media, access to technology, and transformative job development, we will need to create a new and different kind of approach, one that puts curiosity, motivation, interest, and joy back into the learning equation. What primarily distinguishes our country from the rest of the world, what makes us unique, is not how well we take tests, but the unusual amount of curiosity, individual talent, creativity, ingenuity, and interest in learning and growing that comes from so many Americans and is developed in so many different ways. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were unusual not only because of their drive, but also because they were curious about how things worked and how they were able to learn about things they were passionately interested in. Bill Gates became interested in computers in part because the opportunity to work with computers was presented to him in high school outside of his regular courses. Steve Jobs created the diverse calligraphies found on the Apple computer because he took a calligraphy course that interested him after he had left the formal college world. Their natural leadership inclinations happened because they were curious about and interested in computers, and because they knew that, in order to keep pace with others, they needed to grow, adapt and change.
Unfortunately, due to the pressures to do well on standardized tests, to time spent on practicing for these tests, to the need to “get through” multiple topics required by coverage based standards, to the emphasis on getting more students to take AP courses, and so on, millions of children are lacking the kinds of positive learning experiences that support lifelong learning, increase curiosity, build individual talent, and make learning interesting, rewarding and just plain fun!
How do we promote a focus on developing the positive learning attitudes and values identified in this commentary? A good place for an individual teacher or a faculty to start is to first examine and explore the following questions: What motivated you in school? What did you enjoy doing? What interested you? What types of activities piqued your curiosity? Spurred you to continue learning and growing? My guess is that many teachers would say that they enjoyed learning because they were good and successful at it! They were rewarded for what they did. They did well on tests. They were encouraged to build on their strengths. They liked hands on activities and projects. They were given choices. Few would say that they enjoyed being reminded of their failures, that they liked taking multiple-choice tests or doing worksheets, that they liked reading textbooks, that they found enjoyment in doing an activity that they didn’t understand or was so far above their abilities that they had no chance at success. Most probably had mentors and supporters in times of difficulty. Most had at least a few teachers who encouraged them who were good at explaining difficult concepts or who helped them “learn how to learn”. The list of answers might be expanded through reading articles and books on how to build curiosity, motivation, individual talents, and interest in learning.
Once a list of answers is developed, then the following questions might be examined: What am I/are we currently doing that builds curiosity, interest, relevance, enjoyment, and the kinds of “learning to learn” skills and competencies that our students will need in the future? How do I/we implement and expand programs, approaches and activities in schools and classrooms that motivate and interest students in learning and create enjoyment?
Based on my own informal research and discussions of this topic with teachers and others, here are thirteen suggestions as food for thought:
In sum, a focus on how to create positive attitudes such as curiosity, interest, motivation and relevance leads to a very different way of thinking about school and classroom missions, outcomes, the learning environment, curriculum, instruction, and assessment. For example, instead of a focus on standardized tests passed by everyone, a portfolio assessment approach helps students focus on their individual strengths and reflect on what they have learned. Teachers concentrate on building student strengths rather than dwelling on their failures. Students are provided with opportunities to improve their work before they are graded. More choices and options are given to students in the form of classroom choices, electives, and enrichment activities. Some learning, such as research projects, is built around student interests. Many types of questions become more central to the learning experience. “Learning to learn” skills become a critical part of the classroom experience. There are more opportunities for students to make connections to the outside world in order to raise expectations and build motivation.
These ideas are just some of the starting points for your own discussion on how to develop positive attitudes towards learning and build the individual curiosity, skills, talents, and interests that will propel our students towards a better life, towards continued learning, and towards “pathways to student success” in a 21st century world. While this way of thinking might lead to a wide variety of suggestions and ideas, please remember: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.
[i] SQ3R is a study guide model that is focused around:
Surveying what you are reading;
Questions: Turn chapter and section headings, titles, subheadings into questions;
Read for the answers to each question;
Recite your answers after each section – orally ask yourself the questions and summarize your answers;
Review what you have learned.
Elliott Seif is a long time educator, teacher, college professor, curriculum director, ASCD author and Understanding by Design trainer. If you are interested in examining additional and related teaching and learning topics in order to help to prepare students to live in a 21st century world, go to his website at: www.era3learning.org
Many confuse chaos theory with complexity theory. Chaos theory is defined by nonlinear, chaotic systems, homogeneous in nature, moving toward strange attractors which may very well describe dysfunctional organizational units within a complex system. Complexity theory seeks to understand heterogeneous complex adaptive systems moving toward one or more attractor patterns with the ability for “strong emergence” with radically novel results which describes the institution of education as a whole (Gilstrap, 2005).
Theory is meant to explain in order to gain understanding to the point of accurate predictability whereas the science of complexity serves as a “conceptual framework” or paradigm to analyze complex adaptive systems (Semetsky, 2006). Bloch (2005) says, “It is in the nature of each [complex adaptive entity] to adapt to its environment and internal state to maintain its life” (p. 195). Levin (2002) defines the properties of complex adaptive systems as diversity and individuality of components, localized interactions among those components, and an autonomous process that uses the outcomes of those interactions to select a subset of those components for replication or enhancement. Schools can only be complex if they are more than their ‘complicated’ parts. Structure is not enough since those components have to be in competition and cooperation with each other to have enough tension for the system to become emergent as appropriate components within the school are replicated and enhanced. Schools are just now beginning to embrace complexity since the past has been an effort to revolve and replicate the entire institution of education around a point attractor and wait for the next cycle to occur.
In Waldrop’s (1992) masterpiece, he defines complexity as:
A class of behaviors in which the components of the system never quite lock into place, yet never quite dissolve into turbulence, either. These are the systems that are both stable enough to store information, and yet evanescent enough to transmit it. These are the systems that can be organized to perform complex computations, to react to the world, to be spontaneous, adaptive, and alive (p. 293).
While Stacey’s (1996) following piece examining complexity in human organizations speculates
what the peculiarly human features do seem to add is potential complexity; they make the operation of human systems more complex and unpredictable rather than less so…the rate of information flow, the level of diversity in schemas, and the richness of connectivity among agents all remain as control parameters [with] further control parameters added…of power differentials and levels of anxiety containment (p. 114)
which move the organization along the complexity continuum and/or edge of chaos.
“Complexity arises because you have a great many of these simple components interacting simultaneously” (Waldrop, 1992, p. 86). Since broad features of complex adaptive systems are knowable (Levin, 2002), “the challenge for theorists…is to formulate universal laws that describe when and how such complexities emerge in nature” (Waldrop, 1992, p. 86). Understandings of complex organizations coalesce around relationships, especially in schools where the density of network connections determines the level of complexity (Bloch, 2005; Gilstrap, 2005).
A supersystem such as education has “a holographic or fractal aspect in which the parts interact continually to recreate the whole and the whole affects how the parts interact” (Stacey, 1996, p. 21). As smaller organizational units or fractals, which look similar to the overall organization, paradoxically enable and constrain each other through the layers of the organization, leaders have the opportunity to understand, through complexity science, the “dynamic, co-implicated…integrated levels—including the neurological, the experiential, the contextual/material, the social, the symbolic, the cultural, and the ecological—” of the school “rather than isolated phenomena” (Davis & Simmt, 2006, p. 296). Levin (2002, p. 16-17) asks “seductive” questions surrounding the study of complex adaptive systems that make their study relevant to educational leaders facing diminishing resources, increasing accountability, a hostile political environment, rigid school structures protected by reluctant staff and unions, growing concerns of equity and social justice, and absent family involvement:
The dominant metaparadigm currently views organizations predominantly in equilibrium with members acting rationally and cooperating. Outcomes are predictable in the long run within a regular and uniform world. A metaparadigm based on the science of complexity would understand effective organizations as far from equilibrium operating at the edge of chaos, but not quite falling into chaos. The organization could embrace the paradox of competition and self-organizing cooperation in the behavior of its agents. Actions into outcomes would be unpredictable except in the extremely short-term as “the links between actions and their long-term outcomes are lost in the complex interactions between various components of the system” (Stacey, 1996, p. 248).
An educational complexity metaparadigm would serve as a framework for understanding how school systems act as complex adaptive systems within local, national, and global ecosystems (Waldrop, 1992). Because complex adaptive systems have many parts cooperating and competing, interaction is too overwhelming to reflect on at once, so, paradoxically, educators use many lenses to focus on one or two aspects of a system while keeping in mind that all the systems and agents working together actually account for what is happing on local and global scales (Stacey, 1996). Educational complexity is the matrix of cultural, social, environmental, political, symbolic, economic, historical, and directional interactions and contexts of which any given school is comprised. A school would not exist in as richly a manner and be able to provide the degree of cognitive stimulation necessary for the development of future citizenry without the complexity existent in the public school system. If we were all white, middle-class males from the same geographic location of the U. S. and would never work outside the local school community, then maybe complexity would not be as big an issue; regardless, the brain is a complex learning system that grows by being challenged and making connections through complex problem-solving situations (Nasir & Hand, 2006).
Education is constantly barraged by new programs and new practices (Marzano et al., 2005). The recent trend of comprehensive school reform recognizes the complexity of the school system and attempts “to address all aspects of school effectiveness” (U.S. Department of Education, 1998, p. 21); however, through a lens of complexity, leadership recognizes resources “not as discrete items…but as inter-related variables that are a part of a comprehensive plan to impact student achievement in high-poverty schools. This is an important step beyond one-shot remedies or magic bullets” (Machtinger, 2007, p. 7). Marzano and colleagues(2005) agree with Fritz (1984) and Fullan (2001) that education is too complex for absolute truths or “once-and-for-all answers” (p. 67). DuFour and Eaker (1998) reiterate, “The interconnectedness of the elements affecting teaching and learning makes it impossible to attribute either improvements or problems to a single area” (p. 268). Leaders prepare for structural and pedagogical changes in school function as complex, difficult, and dependent on context while gauging multiple cores of successful practice within unstable environments (Marzano et al., 2005; Schechter & Tischler, 2007; Chenoweth, 2007).
Capacity building is one of the buzz phrases in education due to the complex nature of how society defines student success: “academic achievement; engagement in educationally purposeful activities; satisfaction; acquisition of desired knowledge, skills, and competencies; persistence; and attainment of educational objectives” (Kuh et al., 2007, p. 10). Capacity building within schools could not focus on only one aspect of development within the school because a single group within the school community could not possess all of the capacity necessary to fuel student success. Research indicates that capacity building increases student achievement (Cooter, 2003). All educators in effective schools take responsibility for improvement and professional capacity (Eaker, DuFour & DuFour, 2002; Chu Clewell & Campbell, 2007). Capacity builds as schools focus on learning and getting resources into classrooms to directly benefit students (Machtinger, 2007; U.S. Department of Education, 1998).
Many authors have tried to articulate a definition of capacity. Ervin, Schaughency, Goodman, McGlinchy, and Matthews (2006) simply define capacity as skills, know-how, and available resources. Gewertz (2007) describes capacity as “building the school’s and community partners’ skills to improve, securing the resources to do it” (no page #). Fullan (2006) focuses on marginalized students when he articulates that
capacity building involves any policy, strategy, or other action undertaken that enhances the gap of student learning for all students. Usually it consists of the development of three components in concert: new knowledge and competencies, new and enhanced resources, and new and deeper motivation and commitment to improve things…all played out collectively (p. 28).
Knowledgeable education leaders understand that capacity building relies on the mission and vision of the local context which probably does not include academic achievement as primary to the futures of marginalized students (Schutz, 2006). Low performing schools do not have the capacity to turn themselves around in academic achievement when principals and communities are simply trying to survive concentrated poverty, low expectations, weak courses, burnt out teachers, run down facilities, overcrowding, and poor student behavior (U.S. Department of Education, 1998).
Narrowly focusing expectations of schools in the form of AYP for all students as measured by one unattainable and not always relevant standard, when schools were on the brink of realizing the importance of participation by marginalized populations and opening up the possibility of class mobility of these populations, deflected attention away from what should be the true purposes of education (Noddings, 2006). By focusing attention on education’s inability to teach 100% of children to read and calculate on grade level in grade three through eight and the resulting distrust and dissatisfaction of the school community, schools have an even harder time building the capacity necessary to reach a critical mass in affecting true educational reform to create a truly powerful school-community coalition that could realize greater economic support for low SES schools, more democratic decision-making within low SES communities, and ultimately, better informed and equipped citizens of the future from all classes that might disrupt the status quo of the dominant class (Noguera, 2004). Low SES schools that were led by forward thinking and steadfast administrators continued this course of building the capacity of the school community to ensure truly unlimited opportunity for their student populations where the resources were available to students to be successful academically, socially, and culturally (Nesbit, 2006).
The problem for meaningful and sustainable school reform is not attributable to a lack of energy, ideas, or a willingness to change in education. Fads, competing priorities, and unreasonable mandates deluge leaders immobilizing efforts to sustain and expand promising initiatives (Henig et al., 1999). As funding resources shrink, efficiency and capacity building become more and more important (Kezar, 2006). Teaching specific practices to families over making the effort to build capacity may result in advantages in certain times and places, but a “right way” approach causes action to lose its distinctive character providing the advantage (Lareau, 2000). “We need to reframe our entire reform strategy so that it focuses relentlessly and deeply on capacity building and accountability—a difficult but…doable high-yield strategy” (Fullan, 2006, p. 28).
Capacity building is closely related to organizational learning. Knowledge and understanding moves from tacit to explicit back to tacit. “Teacher change, like most human change, must emanate from within” (Bonner, 2006, p. 41). Education becomes more than parents deferring to teacher professional judgment and only being involved to the extent that teachers value (Henig et al., 1999). By understanding capacity, the “lonely teacher… reaches out to and joins the community and family [as] school is a network with permeable boundaries connecting it to the other institutions comprising society” (Musial, 1999, p. 120), instead of “erect[ing] barriers with one hand while reaching out with the other” (Schutz, 2006, p. 726). Often, in unsuccessful schools, agents simply “do not know how to improve it, or they do not believe it can be improved” (Fullan, 2006, p. 60) when collective efficacy holds the potential for a better future (DuFour & Eaker, 1998). Authoritative leadership is not sustainable; but collective, collaborative, distributed leadership can build capacity and commitment to changing school culture in marginalized communities successfully through cooperating and competition, boundary conversations, dialogue, and productive conflict (Barr & Parrett, 2007; Copland, 2003; Patterson & Rolheiser, 2004; Stacey, 1996).
As part of capacity building, principals actively build leadership capacity in others by “broad-based, skillful participation; a shared vision; established norms of inquiry and collaboration; reflective practice; and improving student achievement” (Lambert, 2003, Chapter 1, p. 1; Copland, 2003) and by developing learning communities where staff growth expands their capacity to provide for students (Eaker, et al., 2002). School reform rooted in the efforts of individuals and dependent on individual academic success cannot be sustained and will fail; working class learning is determined by the cultural context in systems dependent on sociocultural capital as opposed to individual capacity (Livingstone & Sawchuk, 2005; Musial, 1999). If capacity relies only on relationships or only on structure, capacity will be too soft or too rigid. Capacity is essential. “Because social systems are uncertain by their very nature, schools are fragile places (Lambert, 2003, Chapter 10, p. 1).
Many factors interact to determine educational capacity (O’Day et al., 1995). Yet, education experts agree, capacity building “must become a core feature of all improvement strategies” (Fullan, 2006, p. 104). Education has progressed to the point where discussion about capacity involves lists whose discussion centers around lines of responsibility versus lines of authority. These discussions describe capacity as built through clear accountability, relevant data available for analysis and application, and high expectations for staff with support of professional development (Walk, 1998). O’Day and colleagues (1995) feel “interdependence of organization and individual capacity” contributes to an understanding of instructional capacity (no page #). These authors list the five dimensions of organizational capacity as vision and leadership, collective commitment and cultural norms, knowledge or access to knowledge, organizational structures and management, and resources.
McREL (Dean et al., 2005, p. 5) defines capacity in three ways:
Complex descriptions alluding to practices evident in High-Performing High-Poverty Schools (HP2S) get past the tendency to create lists and begin to open the door to envisioning improving instructional capacity in schools as an interaction of multiple elements to “produce worthwhile and substantial learning” (Cohen & Ball, 1999). Capacity building efforts result in “adoption, sustainability, and evolution of innovation” to allow HP2S to emerge (Schaughency & Ervin, 2006, p. 162).
This post is a part of the ASCD Forum conversation “How do we define and measure teacher and principal effectiveness?" To learn more about the ASCD Forum, go to www.ascd.org/ascdforum.
In a perfect world (or at least my perfect world), teacher effectiveness would be measured with a simple rubric. The rubric would have a four letter title, and three simple check boxes. It would look a little something like this:
Pillars of Effectiveness
Whole Lotta Love!
Where’s the Love?
Working with Others
Belief in Oneself
Ideals of Education
The rubric would be completed by all educators (whether teacher, teacher-leader, building leader, or other educational staff). An educator who could not honestly check “Whole Lotta Love” for each category would leave the profession and use their strengths somewhere else.
Realistic? Unfortunately, not in today’s world.
With the emphasis on in-depth evaluations and constant collection of data, we rarely take the time to truly ask, “What, in its simplest form, does an effective educator do? What values must an effective educator have?” After reading this week’s Forum topic (and a recent article in the New York Times), I can’t help but think these three “loves” are at the epitome of effective education. After all, if you ask an effective educator if they feel deeply passionate about these three areas, all will say, “Yes.” At the same time, if an educator doesn’t exhibit a true love for these strands, then chances are, that educator is not effective.
So, what makes these three areas so imperative when talking about effective education? Here are my thoughts; feel free to add yours in the comments section
Imagine if. . .
. . .rating teacher effectiveness was this simple.
. . .a process like this was used across the country.
. . .rating systems were built on “love” and not “punishment.”
. . .our educational system truly wore its heart on its sleeve.
If you’re proud to be an educator now, imagine how filled with pride you would be then.
Anderson, Jenny. (2013, March 30). Curious Grade for Teachers: Nearly All Pass. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/31/education/curious-grade-for-teachers-nearly-all-pass.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&
One of my favorite arcade games is Whac-A-Mole. When you drop your token in the machine, you have a limited amount of time to ‘whac’ as many moles as you can. In the beginning of the game, one or two moles pop their heads up and it is fairly easy to hit each one. About twenty seconds into the game, the moles start popping up three at a time and when you smash a mole with the mallet it may pop up again.
Whac-A-Mole is similar to the daily routine of a principal. From the time you arrive at school in the morning until late in the evening, moles pop up. Your job is to address each mole and to prioritize which one is most important. In this article, I am going to describe the ‘Six Moles’ a principal must address in order to be a good leader.
Six Moles A Principal Must Address
Principals receive phone calls, emails, and face-to-face messages from families. If you work in the car rider line at an elementary school, a parent or grandparent may share a concern with you as they drop their child off at school. When you check your email, you may have an email from multiple families with a concern about something that happened the day before. There are times when a family member has a concern about something that is a district level concern, but it is the principal’s job to advocate for families and contact the central office or assist the family in navigating communication with the central office. Families are not ‘moles’, but concerns pop up frequently and the principal cannot ignore family concerns. It is not wise to ‘whac’ a family member, but the concern must be addressed.
A principal wears several hats and the instructional leadership hat is critical to the success of the school. If a principal is focused on email, returning phone calls, developing professional development, and attending meetings, he or she will not be able to focus on the main thing. When a principal visits classrooms for formal or informal observations, it helps him or her get a pulse for student achievement and curriculum implementation. A principal should be a coach, cheerleader, critical friend, and more! If a principal does not visit classrooms on a regular basis, then the school will not continue to grow. Instructional rounds cannot be something that a principal does when the ‘mole’ pops up. This important leadership role must be part of the principal’s regular schedule.
Student Discipline pops up unexpectedly. There may be a student issue on the bus ride to school. Students may have a dispute on the playground. A student may break a school rule on the way to the next class. Handling student discipline is one of the main roles of principal leadership. Teachers and staff assist with student discipline, but when this ‘mole’ pops its head up, the principal cannot ignore it and move to the next three moles that pop up. Some of you reading this article may be thinking, “If student discipline is a mole, then ‘whac’ it.” You cannot use a hammer to hit every problem. When you use the Whac-A-Mole approach to student discipline it means you handle the problems as they arise, rather than waiting for more problems to pop up.
One of the most challenging ‘moles’ for a principal is email. If you sit at your desk from 8:00 am – Noon, you will see multiple moles pop up on your screen. More building principals are carrying a personal or school assigned smart phone on their hip. At one point, it was easy to avoid email because you could walk away from the computer. Principals have the ability to check email in the hallway, in meetings, while they are off campus, at home, and any time day or night. If principals focus on each email as it pops up then they will get distracted and miss out on other important leadership duties. Email is a great analogy to the game Whac-A-Mole. When you reply to email it continues to pop up. Time management is important and Whac-A-Mole Leadership involves more than whacking each email, hoping to bop all of the ‘email moles.’
Leading professional development is important. When a school staff stops learning, they stop growing. It is easy for principals to spend several hours developing a video, presentation, or hands-on learning activity. Quality professional development requires planning, learning goals, and materials. Principals are wise to develop a teacher leadership team who can assist with professional development. This will allow the principal to have a role in leading professional development, without having to plan the entire session. This year, our school has conducted professional development on the Six Instructional Shifts (Common Core State Standards), Technology Integration, Literacy, and School Safety. If the principal ignores professional development, then it may not happen. However, a building principal cannot sit in the office and develop every PD, while ignoring other ‘moles’ throughout the school.
Communication is an important responsibility and it cannot be ignored. Principals need to communicate through the school website, email, newsletters, video, blogs, face-to-face meetings, PTA meetings, Coffee Hour, phone calls, and informal meetings in the parking lot. Principals need to be intentional about communication. Principals need to communicate with classroom teachers through classroom observations, email, blog, faculty meetings, notes, and informal meetings. A principal could spend his or her entire day developing communication documents or preparing a speech for the next meeting. It is important to see communication as a mole that you ‘whac’, but also as something you plan for. If you are not communicating and marketing the great things about your school, then who is marketing your school? You cannot afford to let the ‘communication mole’ pop its head up too many times.
Whac-A-Mole Leadership is a humorous way to describe the day of a principal. We can all laugh and relate to the moles that pop up throughout the day. You can probably describe several more moles that principals must address if you reflect on your past week. “Leaders are usually distinguished by their ability to think big. But when their focus shifts, they suddenly start thinking small. They micro manage, they get caught up in details better left to others, and they become consumed with the trivial and unimportant. And to make matters worse, this tendency can be exacerbated by an inclination toward perfectionism” (Sanborn, M.). If the goal of leadership becomes whacking the next mole, we may miss the most important things. Stephen Covey shared the Leadership Matrix (as shared by Michael Hyatt, Intentional Leadership). Principals must ask, “Is this mole important and urgent?” or “Is this mole urgent, but not important?” As the moles pop up at your school, I wish you the best. Keep whacking moles, but make certain you are focused on the right mole.
This post is a part of the ASCD Forum conversation “how do we define and measure teacher and principal effectiveness?” To learn more about the ASCD Forum, go to www.ascd.org/ascdforum, or join the ASCD Forum group on ASCD EDge.
We have all heard the adage, “Every teacher a teacher of reading.” Some educators find this notion controversial because our education system is not set up to allow every teacher to be a teacher of reading. Departmentalization is the norm in middle and high schools, and even in a good number of elementary schools. One teacher teaches language arts, while others teach math, science, or social studies. Some content area teachers are understandably frightened at the thought of having to teach reading. For teachers whose expertise is in math or social studies, the idea of having to teach reading might be unpalatable. But we have entered the era of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and the standards have brought the notion of “every teacher a teacher of reading” back full force. In addition, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2011 reading scores tell us that a large percentage of our students really do need help to read proficiently. Only 34% of fourth graders read at or above a proficient level, and a third of fourth graders read below the basic level for their grade [National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 2011]. The story only gets a little better for eighth graders; 34% read at or above a proficient level, and 24% read below basic (NCES, 2011). All educators must therefore band together and embrace the challenge of helping their students become proficient readers, and teacher preparation programs play a huge role in this challenge.
The CCSS writers themselves seem to support the notion of “every teacher a teacher of reading.” The introduction to the CCSS for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects states,
“The Standards insist that instruction in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language be a shared responsibility within the school. The K–5 standards include expectations for reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language applicable to a range of subjects, including but not limited to ELA. The grades 6–12 standards are divided into two sections, one for ELA and the other for history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. This division reflects the unique, time-honored place of ELA teachers in developing students’ literacy skills while at the same time recognizing that teachers in other areas must have a role in this development as well” (p. 4).
And in the section that discusses what is not covered by the standards, the CCSS writers continue,
“The Standards define literacy expectations in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects, but literacy standards in other areas, such as mathematics and health education, modeled on those in this document are strongly encouraged to facilitate a comprehensive, schoolwide literacy program” (p. 6).
The interdisciplinary approach to literacy taken by the CCSS poses a challenge to teacher preparation programs nationwide. How can teacher educators prepare teachers who will be effective not only in their areas of disciplinary expertise, but also in enabling their students to access the varied and complex texts that they encounter throughout the grades? I believe that a three-pronged approach will help teacher preparation programs foster and sustain the effectiveness of all teachers as teachers of reading.
First, there should be increased preparation for elementary teachers in how to teach reading. In my Master’s program in elementary education, through which I attained my licensure for teaching grades Pre-K through 6, I had only one course specifically focused on reading, and a lot of our time and assignments in this course were focused on children’s literature. This was great because using children’s literature appropriately and effectively is certainly one very important aspect of teaching reading. But with the increasing focus on informational text in the CCSS and with the multitude of skills that underlie proficient reading, it takes much more than one course on reading to help elementary teachers learn all that they need to know and be able to do to teach reading. My Master’s program also included coursework on teaching language arts, but a lot of this was focused on writing instruction and development. This was also incredibly important and valuable content, but there still seemed to be a lot of content on teaching reading that there simply wasn’t enough time to cover. Preparation in the teaching of reading for elementary teachers must be much more extensive. It must cover the five big areas of reading [phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000)] thoroughly and with lots of opportunity for application in working with students.
Second, all teachers need to know and understand the five big areas of reading. A high school math teacher would then be able to discuss with other professionals in her school what to do about a student who might be reading very choppily from his math textbook, using the term fluency. A high school biology teacher with a student who could not read the complex, multi-syllable words in his textbook would understand that there might be a phonics-based or morphological weakness underlying the student’s difficulty reading, and could seek assistance from the school’s reading specialist on ways to support this student. Having some working knowledge of the different areas of reading with which students struggle would empower content area teachers. Many secondary education programs do include one course on reading and writing across the curriculum, but this type of coursework should be more comprehensive and inclusive of the five big areas of reading. (No one ever talks about phonemic awareness or phonics and very rarely do they discuss fluency with middle or high school teachers!) Teacher preparation programs should also require all teachers to complete case studies where they practice implementing literacy strategies within their content areas with students so that they are prepared to incorporate literacy instruction into their teaching in ways consistent with the CCSS.
Finally, content area methods classes in teacher preparation programs should emphasize the specific disciplinary challenges inherent in that content area. For instance, a few years ago I worked on a content analysis study of middle school history textbooks. We tried to identify the specific features inherent in historical writing that might prove challenging for students. Our work revealed that text structures such as cause and effect and chronology, and linguistic features such as unclear referential devices are some of the most common in history texts. These are the features of historical texts that history teachers should be prepared to emphasize with their students, providing them with strategies for tackling these linguistic and structural challenges. The texts of each discipline have their own unique challenges, and when teachers are familiar with these challenges, they can help their students overcome them more easily.
The CCSS have set a high bar with the expectation that all teachers must be teachers of reading. It is now up to teacher preparation programs to prepare all teachers to take on this role.
National Center for Education Statistics (2011). The Nation's Report Card: Reading 2011 (NCES 2012–457). Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/main2011/2012457.pdf
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction: Reports of the subgroups (NIH Publication No. 00-4754). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.