Category Archives: leadership

A Teacher’s Appreciation For Her Principal (Ann Staley)

So rare it is for a teacher to write appreciatively about her principal. There are, of course, many reasons for the rarity: too much already on teachers’ plates, writing is hard to do, principals who perform all that is expected of them from diverse audiences are themselves an endangered species (add your own reason here).  I found this  personal portrait of a secondary school principal on the mark for capturing much that is often lost in the current lust for principals to do it all as instructional leaders, CEOs, and hand-shaking politicians.

I knew Ann Staley as a student in one of my classes soon after I came to Stanford to teach three decades ago. Over the time she was in graduate school, we ended up having many conversations about teaching, learning, graduate school, and life in all of its twists and turns. After leaving Stanford, she settled in Oregon and became a teacher and writer. She has taught in junior and senior high schools–winning an award in 1996–supervised student teachers, and taught writing at community college.  A few years ago, she retired from teaching but continued writing both prose and poetry. Every so often we would contact one another. She has published two volumes of poems, Primary Sources and  Instructions for the Wishing Light.  I posted a poem she wrote about her second grade teacher, “Mrs. Kitchen.

Principal Jae Johnson hired Staley in her first job as an English teacher. She wrote this in 1984.

A Good One. No, A Great One

Iowa. Wide-skied, rural, back roads meandering, farm, tidy with care. In a rootless myopic and arcane world, it’s a place you’d like to come from. Jae Johnson did, and it shows.

Jae made his way to Oregon via his brother’s interest in the family farm and his own in a Ph.D. Although he has a way of making his life  very much in the present, still, beside the Principal’s desk at Hedrick Junior High is a black and white photograph of a small farm outside Iowa Falls.

You get to see that photograph when you go in to talk with Jae. Taking off his glasses, he swivels around while nodding at a nearby chair. Neither folksey nor ceremonious, you feel as welcome as if you’ve come by after church. Though his manner is straightforward and eager, he waits for you to get down to things, and if you want some ‘personal time’, he sits back on that swiveler and listens. he likes people in his office, and committees, parents, faculty, delinquent or achieving kids, even a bus driver or two, all have their time to consider that central Iowa farm and the farm-boy who is now Principal.

Back in the early ’70s Hedrick had a hodgepodge faculty of the usual assortment–good ‘oleboys,’ spinster-types with dyed hair, hot shots from the ’60s schools of education, with some good and bad teachers among them all. When Dr. Johnson arrived there was a  sub rosa rebellion amongst the old guard who were mad because a local golfing partner had been by-passed. Instead they’d gotten Jae, and although it took them a few years to come to their senses, over time they found that they felt privileged to work with this man of integrity.

He deals carefully with his diverse staff, agonizing over how to confront a mean history teacher with thirty years tenure and with helping the young art teachers gain control over a 2nd period class that is too creative. Looking through the Audubon Field Guide, he finds ‘a way’ with an out-of-touch math instructor who is an expert ornithologist. When chaos threatens the cafeteria, it is Dr. J who sits down to lunch with the kids. In an organizational structure where secretaries and janitors often have the ‘real’ power, he is the authority behind them. Taking people at their apparent value, he tries first to understand, knowing that real change is rooted in his comprehension and the teachers’ desire for it.

His organization receives the same measured care. New ideas are introduced slowly, after opinion polls, newspaper articles, and arduous committee work. It is clear this his view is large and broad, but he has infinite patience in moving toward it. He respects people and the durability (and sometimes inflexibility ) of the structure and the powers-that-be. It took a year and a half of faculty work to develop and implement a “floating period” which lessened the teachers’ load of students each day. He encouraged this change by finding the key people on his staff and using them as leaders while he gave rather objective and problem-solving advice from the sidelines. He uses the “sideline” like a winning coach.

With an insane September-June pace he keeps his ideas coming each week with “From This End of the Log,” a series of quotes from professional journals, children’s books, poems and the like. He is an avid reader who enjoys science, history, and baseball, and uses his newsletter for diversion and inspiration.

Drive by Hedrick on Saturday or Sunday and you’ll see Jae’ old VW “bug” out front. He’s inside making plans, reading, getting those notes into mailboxes. Hard work and commitment are natural to Jae, in his genetic code, like the quiet blue eyes. It is as if he lived nature’s effect upon land and comes to people understanding their interdependence and cycles. He does not push the river.

But Jae’s very strengths are also his limitations. Commitment to his work makes for tension that at times explodes unreasonably at those nearby. His drive and intelligence set him apart, in loneliness, from his administrative colleagues [in other schools] who are quietly resentful of his successes and at odds with his values. Because he is has such “people savvy” and empathy, it is often impossible for him to make the tough decisions, and he has agonized and rationalized for many an undeserving staff member.

Finally, ironically, his love for the land keeps him in a quiet turmoil. Once he confided that he wished he could go back and farm with his brother or work as a teacher in a one-room school. Yet this last dilemma especially makes Jae a man to respect: he lives with the ambiguity of loving many things. Each year that he again chooses education, he inspires others to see their work as important, as weighing-out on the side of “good.” It is his land that has given him the strength of many loves, and he brings that plus his satisfaction and challenge to others.

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Business as Usual in Corporations and Schools

In the heart of Silicon Valley where start-ups are a way of life, open space offices and teams rule the landscape. Even at the biggest of the big companies such as Google and Facebook, power struggles among and between bureaucrats are a thing of the past. “Move fast and break things” is a Facebook’s slogan. Flat organizations, no elaborate hierarchies, and constant change dominate. Or so, everyone seems to say. See here, here, and here.

Then along comes a Stanford professor who says: “Sorry Kids, Corporate Power Hasn’t Changed.” Jeffrey Pfeffer at the Graduate School of Business since 1979 has studied organizations for decades. According to Pfeffer, Silicon Valley firms–big and small–recruit engineers and programmers to become managers by saying:

We’re not political here. We’re young, cool, socially networked, hip, high-technology people focused on building and selling great products. We’re family-friendly, have fewer management levels and less hierarchy, and make decisions collegially.

It just ain’t so, according to Pfeffer. He points out that hierarchies exists in all organizations and power, acquiring status, and control over ideas and practices are in play unceasingly. He points to the power struggles that occurred at the birth of Twitter and the frequent turnover of CEOs as Hewlett-Packard. And hierarchy is alive and well at Facebook and Google where dual classes of stock “allow the founders to retain the lion’s share of control.” An infographic on hierarchy at both firms would have strengthened his argument even further.

Pfeffer concludes his article with the flat-out statement:

Competition for status and advancement exists not only over time and across countries but also in virtually all species. In short, whether we like it or not, the rules of power abide largely unchanged. People who ignore these principles do so at their peril.

I was struck by Pfeffer’s points that amid all of the talk about change, flat organizations, and team-work, the constancy of competition within companies for power and status remains. Even in Silicon Valley.

Power, Status, and Hierarchy in Public Schools

A similar rhetoric pervades the quest for effective schooling. Reformers, both on the political left and right, say teachers need to collaborate, network, and build strong school cultures where instruction and learning are primary goals. See here, here, and here. But talk is cheap. Beyond the words, what are the organizational realities (i.e., tall or flat, hierarchical or teams) in public schools?

Most U.S. elementary schools are already “flat” organizationally. There is a principal, a few administrative and instructional aides, building staff, and the largest group of all, the  teachers who report to the principal. That’s it. In larger secondary schools there are more administrators, staff, and rules but few hierarchical strata separate teachers from their principals. The largest number of staff in middle and high schools are teachers. But rules also come from district and state offices.

Regulations abound in schools because districts are creatures of the state which, in turn, makes educational policy for everyone. So district administrators try to make sure that local and state policies are followed in schools. School-site principals do the same with teachers. In short, even with a flat school-site organization, bureaucratic levels exist in school districts and the state which means that elbowing for higher status and getting more clout occur in schools, districts, and state departments of education. Here’s the catch, however.

With all of the rules and hierarchical levels from classroom through the state superintendent of education, teachers have one things in their power to do: close the classroom door. They are (and have been) gatekeepers for student content, skills, and attitudes.

What about charter schools that have autonomy and are free from most district and state regulations? KIPP, Aspire, and other groups of charter schools have state and national organizations that make rules for individual schools to follow. As in public schools, however, charter school teachers can close their doors.

Teachers as gatekeepers exist because the organizational reality of both regular and charter schools is that they are age-graded and each teacher has a self-contained classroom with a door to close. Teachers have power within their classroom but little outside of it unless they develop a support network, a culture within the school. And, from time to time, that has occurred in both charter and regular schools.

Consider all the talk of moving to project-based learning and shifting the teacher’s role from the sage-on-stage to guide-on-the-side. Periodically, school reformers for more than a century have coerced, urged, and pleaded with teachers to change their dominant teacher-centered forms of instruction into more student-centered ones along the lines mentioned above.

On occasion, some of the reforms have stuck in some schools where teachers  weathered criticism and supported one another through cascades of hype and criticism. In these scattered instances, teachers kept their doors open and built a stable school culture supporting such instructional reforms as teaching in small groups regularly, sustaining open classrooms, using project-based learning, and creating rich student-centered activities (see here and here). But not most teachers who returned time and again to practices that worked better for them than the “new” reform simply because they could close their classroom doors.

These are (and have been) abiding features of public schools and companies that no amount of talk and hype about doing business differently has changed. Even in Silicon Valley.

 

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A Second Look at iPads in Los Angeles

The rollout of iPads in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is becoming a classic case study of what not-to-do when implementing any innovation whether it is high-tech or low-tech.  I wrote about the adoption of the innovation six months ago.

What is clear now is that teachers and principals were excluded from the decision-making process. The Total Cost of Operation (TCO) was a mystery to the Board of Education who made the decision. And the initial deployment of the devices was so botched that the pilot project was put on hold.  Phase 2 and the eventual distribution of devices to all LAUSD students remains to be decided once errors have been sorted out.

Called The Common Core Technology Project, each iPad costs the district $678,  higher than the price of an iPad bought in an Apple store, but it comes with a case (no keyboard, however) and an array of pre-loaded software aimed at preparing students for the impending Common Core standards and the state online testing system. The Board of Education and Superintendent John Deasy want each student to have access to an iPad. With  mostly Latino and poor students in LAUSD, the eventual cost of this contract with Apple Inc. could run over $400 million.

Were the Board and Superintendent to have paused and examined the history of using technology in public schools, they might have thought twice before major bollixes occurred.

1. There is no body of evidence that iPads will increase math and reading scores on state standardized tests. There is no evidence that students using iPads (or laptops or desktop computers) will get decent paying jobs after graduation.

These are the most common reasons boards of education and school administrators across the nation give for buying tablets for K-12 students. But not in LAUSD.

Acquiring 1:1 iPads for students, according to the LAUSD press release is to: “provide an individualized, interactive and informative-rich learning environment” for every student. One would have to assume that such an “environment” would lead to gains in test scores. But it is an assumption. Since many low-income families do not have computers at home or Internet connections, providing iPads is a worthy reason–what used to be called “closing the digital divide“–for the large expenditure.

On what basis, however, will the district determine whether to move to phase 2 of the plan? Again, according to the official press release, the assessment of this first phase “will include feedback … from teachers, students, parents and other key stakeholders.” That’s it. No hard data on how often the devices were used, in what situations, and under what conditions. Nor mention of data on student outcomes.

Now, informal surveys of teachers and school administrators show mixed reactions, even disaffection for iPads in classrooms.

2. Apart from “closing the digital divide,” the main reason for the Apple Inc. contract is that Common Core standards and accompanying online tests are on the horizon and due to arrive in 2014-2015. LAUSD wants teachers and students to be ready.

3. The true cost of this experiment runs far higher than the projected $400 million to give iPads to 655,000 students. That is what Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) means. The cost for the iPad is given as $678 per unit (remember, there is no keyboard usually listed at $100 which will have to be bought eventually for secondary school students).Now, budget-watchers discovered that the devices will cost even more. An Oops! that surprised the Board of Education.

Funds to hire school technical assistants, providing the wireless infrastructure, loss of tablets, and repair of broken tablets, insurance, professional development for teachers, costs for replacement devices when three-year warranties expire—I could go on but these numbers double and triple the published hardware and software costs. Consider that the reports of the $30 million contract with Apple Inc. omitted that the Board of Education approved $50 million for this first phase to accommodate some of these other costs detailed above.

And just a few days ago, a major Oops! was announced when the Board of Education, in questioning a top administrator, discovered that the software license to use the math and English curriculum expires after three years—the clock began ticking last July when the Board approved the contract. Renewal of the license in just over two years will cost another $60 million. Add that to the TCO.

Intel, a company with a vested interest in Microsoft tablets and a losing competitor in the LAUSD bid for a contract, produced a white paper that pointed out that TCO runs from two to three times higher than the announced price of the device. No one said a word about that.

The point is that administrators and school boards eager to buy devices hide TCO in separate documents or glossy verbiage. In other instances, they simply do not know or care to find out in their enthusiasm for the innovation.  LAUSD experienced a perfect storm of mistakes in plunging into iPads without much forethought and a glance in the rear-view mirror for earlier reform debacles in putting into practice a high-tech innovation.

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Cheating Scandals Reaffirm, Not Diminish, Testing

Not until the trials (or plea bargains) are over, will a verdict be rendered on former Superintendent Beverly Hall’s guilt or innocence in what is called the Atlanta cheating scandal. Hall’s indictment follows on the heels of finding El Paso Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia guilty last Fall. He is now serving three and a half years in jail (see here and here).

Even before a judge or jury decides on her guilt or innocence, anti-testing groups, feeding on Atlanta, El Paso, and the investigation of tampering with test scores under Washington, D.C. school chief, Michelle Rhee, have grabbed the case to further their cause. Moreover, over the years, journalists have uncovered oddities in test scores jumping sky-high in one year in other districts across the nation.

Foes of standardized tests feel the rush of adrenalin in saying that these examples of dishonest adults raising student test scores to receive applause and cash awards are pervasive. Defenders of standardized testing and accountability, however, see the  cheating as exceptions, as a few rotten apples in a barrel full of worm-free ones. Most educators, advocates of test-driven accountability say, are decent, hard working professionals who play by the rules and can be trusted to do the right thing.

In this volleying back-and-forth between advocates and foes of standardized testing,  school scandals have been compared to cheating in baseball, bicycle racing, and other sports.

From Mark McGuire‘s stained home run record to Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong‘s admission that he doped while racing, these and other sports have come under a dark cloud of suspicion–an outcome damaging to top athletes, companies dependent upon income derived from professional sports, fans turning into cynics, and disappointed youth who only want to play the game by the rules.

Cheating in both sports and schools can be traced to the unleashed and fierce competition in performing better and better to gain ever-larger rewards. Professional sports are money machines and being a top performer is rewarded handsomely; scores on international tests, ranking schools within a state and district based on performance, a broader array of school choices, and federal regulations in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top  have ratcheted upward intense pressure to beat  state tests.

Also common to school cheating and drug-drenched sports is betraying the public trust to gain personal advantage.  When adults erase student answers and professional athletes take illegal drugs to enhance performance, such acts erode the faith that adults and youth have in social institutions being fair.

Another common feature is the unshaken confidence that current authorities have in written and computerized tests assessing student learning and drug tests determining whether athletes are cheating. When cheating is uncovered, few decision-makers question the tests. Tighter security and better tests are the solutions.

*Few decision-makers question whether there might be something wrong in professional athletics (i.e., expansion of baseball, football, hockey, and basketball leagues and over-the-top competition for more money).

*Few decision-makers question whether most toddlers and young children from low-income families should be tested especially since they bring to school very different strengths and weaknesses than children from middle and upper-income homes. Or that such early testing of young children squeezes inequities into judgments of what they can and cannot do in preschool and elementary school classrooms.

*Few decision-makers question the national obsession with student test scores as the correct metric to judge schools, teachers, and students.

This deep reluctance to question powerful interests invested in socioeconomic structures and cultures in which cheating occurs is why I believe that standardized tests in schools, like drug testing in sports, will be reaffirmed rather than overturned. There will be continuing challenges–as there should be–but standardized testing will remain rock-solid. Why?

First, note that most of the cheating incidents have been largely in districts where high percentages of poor and minority students attend school. Sure, there are exceptions but when you look closely at where dishonesty is found, those charters and regular public schools enroll large numbers of children from low-income families. I have yet to find any district school boards, investigators, charter school leaders or policymakers recommend examining the tests to see if they do what they are supposed to do or, after conducting such an examination, finding unworthy tests and getting rid of them. Yes, there have been protests by educators, students, and middle- and upper-middle class families against too much standardized testing (see here and here). These protests have led to occasional boycotts but none have occurred, to my knowledge, in poor neighborhoods. If anything, there is a reaffirmation of tests, calls for greater security, and plaudits for any whistle-blowers.

The point is that these tests sort students and schools by scores that  reinforce rather than erase existing gaps in achievement. And sorting is necessary to determine who, beginning at the age of four, shall climb each rung of that ladder reaching college. The system of private and public schooling requires such tests to distinguish high achievers from others. If the tests were really that accurate in making such distinctions across children and youth of being smart on paper, with people, and in life now and later, then, perhaps we need such tests . But that is not the case now… by a long shot.

Second, to underscore the above point, consider the experience of cheating on the SAT. After a scandal revealed that high-scoring individuals with fake IDs were paid to take the SAT test, Educational Testing Service tightened security at test sites. No challenges of the test itself occurred. SAT scores remain crucial for college admission and no school boards, teachers, or parent groups called for the end of the test.

Count on cheaters getting more clever and investigators still hunting them down. Amid increasing numbers of cheating incidents, standardized tests will be challenged, maybe the numbers even reduced, but nonetheless, they will reign for the immediate future.

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Districts as the Engine of School Reform: Past and Present (Part 2)

Districts have again become the darlings of school reformers. Where once reformers, past and present, skipped back and forth lining up their cross-hairs on the best targets  for improving schooling such as individual teachers and principals, whole schools, and districts, today’s school reformers generally target districts. Many reasons explain the shift to districts but one, in my opinion, that accounts for the current passion among self-proclaimed reformers to turnaround failing schools and a mediocre national system of K-12 education is the increased authority that state and federal officials have accumulated over time to make local decisions.

Historically, states have the constitutional duty to provide education. States created districts and delegated authority to run schools. U.S. education, then, has been a decentralized operation for two centuries. In the early 1930s, there were nearly 130,000 districts in 50 states. Since then, the trend has been to merge districts into larger ones (there are now 14,000 districts). Mergers continued and since the 1960s with the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, federal and state authority over district schools have become more and more centralized.  State and the federal authorities now mandate what curriculum standards have to be taught in districts, what texts have to be used in classrooms, which tests must be given, what happens when students fail to perform satisfactorily on tests, and–increasingly–how content and skills should be taught. Oops! Did I forget that states (44 percent) and feds (nearly 10 percent) supply most funding for districts?

To state and federal officials, mandates, money, penalties for non-performance, and the stigma of shame are the primary levers to institute desired changes in districts from offering parents choices in charter schools to adopting Common Core standards to evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores. Yet to these reform-driven officials, too many districts lack the political will and resolve to turn the corner on poor performance. Mandates, money, penalties, and shame seem to have little effect on persistently low-performing schools and districts.

What’s an eager state and federal official, armed with the authority to make rules and dispense funds to do when district inaction or minimal compliance occurs? One answer may be to look at districts, past and present, that have succeeded in turning themselves around, in adopting reforms that they worked at for years, and ask: how did they do it? What factors were common to them?

A recent article on Union City (NJ) does exactly that. David Kirp details what district officials in this largely immigrant and poor school system (10,300 students in 2013) did over a quarter-century–yes, 25 years–to make incremental changes from adding preschools to curriculum overhaul to a culture of learning and respect for community to, even new technologies. All of these changes were coordinated and eventually funded under the state Supreme Court’s Abbott decision. Stable leadership from school boards and superintendents  over decades converted these changes into standard operating procedures. Current school chief is Stanley Sanger who has spent a decade as ssuperintendent after a career as social studies teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent–all in Union City. These incremental and steady changes accumulated into a success story, including the district’s one high school.

Push the rewind button  and go back in time to 1907 in Gary (IN). A company town literally owned by U.S. Steel, the Gary school board appointed William Wirt  superintendent; he served over 30 years. Influenced by the ideas of John Dewey and the emerging efficiency movement, Wirt introduced an innovative way of organizing schools, teaching, and learning for mostly immigrant students to work-study-and play called the Gary Plan or Platoon school. At a time when urban schools across the nation were looking  for ways to solve the problems of slums, overcrowded schools, and how to teach immigrant children the Gary Plan offered solutions.

The innovation was introduced into reorganized schools holding children from kindergarten through the twelfth grade. Administrators divided each school’s students  into two groups or “platoons.” One platoon would be in the classrooms or auditorium while the other would be in the basement where there were woodworking, printing, and other shops; upstairs in music, art, and play rooms; or outside on the playground. During the day, each platoon would change places, giving each child academic, practical, recreational, and aesthetic experiences while using the entire facility. While most urban elementary school children before World War I stayed the entire 6-8 hour school day in a self-contained classroom with one teacher, Gary pupils worked-studied-and played during an eight-hour day, even receiving released time for religious instruction. Adults used the school at night to take English courses and pick up other job skills.

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Such a work-study-play-community school arrangement—a revolutionary shift in school organization and curriculum—made it possible to have many more students attend school–over 20,000 in the 1920s–since the schedule permitted all available space to be used by students during the day with adults taking courses at night. The Gary innovation spread swiftly across the nation but by the 1930s and the Great Depression had largely disappeared from the agendas of reform-minded policymakers.

In Part 3, I offer one more example of a district reform and then offer answers to the questions asked above: how did districts do it? What factors were common to them?

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Why Do Smart People Do Dumb Things? Thinking about School Reform

Examples are legion. Recall President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Or Director of the Central Intelligence Agency David Petraeus resigning over extra-marital affair. Or shrewd investors in Bernard Madoff’s company losing their financial shirts.

Switch to education and consider El Paso (TX) Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia who went to jail for inflating student test scores and giving a no-bid contract to his mistress.

OK, Larry, you made your point. People with smarts, power, and position caved in to their impulses. They did dumb things.

Actually, I want to go beyond that self-evident point made elsewhere and say that very smart educational policymakers also engage in folly not involving sex or money. Two stories make that point.

The first happened in New York City public schools in the early 1980s over abolishing “social promotion.” For many years, reformers had criticized educators for moving students to the next grade when they lacked the requisite knowledge and skills. The then Chancellor instituted a “Promotional Gates Program” in elementary and middle school grades with high-stakes tests in reading and math. If students didn’t pass they would have to repeat the grade. After a few years, so many students failed the test and were retained in grade that they eventually dropped out of school. When data confirmed that outcome, the Promotional Gates program disappeared.

Then a decade later, Another Chancellor attacked “social promotion” by holding back 35,000 students, requiring them to take special summer classes to advance to the next grade. Of that number, nearly 25,000 had failed the annual tests but almost a fifth of those failures occurred because of mistakes made by district officials. The Chancellor at that time quickly ended the program. But in 2000, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein railed again at “social promotion” and, yes, you guessed it–another version of the “promotional gates” was resurrected.  Putting an untested policy into action the first time might be chalked up to error. And then putting those same ideas into practice a second time is dumb. But a third time? Well, That’s plain stupid.

Now consider the story of an elite university sliding into dumbness.

In the late 1960s Stanford University administrators secured federal funds to build a multimillion dollar facility called the Stanford Center for Research, Development, and Teaching (SCRDT). A fully furnished television studio with “state-of-the-art” cameras, videotape recorders, and monitors occupied the main floor with the star-in-the-crown of the new building located in the Large-Group Instruction room (LGI).

The amphitheater-shaped room with half-circular rows looked down on a small stage with a lectern, a massive pull-down screen, and two large monitors suspended from the ceiling. At most of the individual seats was a small punch-button pad called the “student responder.” The responder contained the numbers 1-10 and letters T and F.

At the very top of the amphitheater was a glass-enclosed technician’s station where an aide could assist the professor with simultaneous interpretation of various languages, show slides or films, and put on monitors data that the professors wanted.  Administrators had designed the room for professors to enhance the delivery of lectures.

For lectures, the student responder came into play.  Students punched in their choices to communicate answers to the professor’s questions, such as “If you agree, press 1, disagree, press 2.” “If statement is true, press T.”  As students pressed the keypad, the data went directly to a mainframe computer where the students’ responses were immediately assembled and displayed for the professor at a console on the lectern. The lecturer was then able to adjust the pace and content of the lecture to this advanced interactive technology, circa 1970, that linked students to teacher.

By 1972 when I came to Stanford as a graduate student, the LGI was being used as a large lecture hall for classes from other departments. The now-disconnected keypads were toys that bored students played with during lectures. The pull-down screen was used for overheads and occasional films. The fixed position cameras purchased in the late 1960s were already beyond repair and obsolete.

In 1981, when I returned to teach at Stanford, the SCRDT had been renamed the Center for Educational Research at Stanford (CERAS). In the LGI, none of the original equipment or technology (except the sound system) was used by either students or professors. The student responders, however, were still there.

In 2011, nearly a half-century after the SCRDT installed the LGI, the amphitheater room was still in use as a regular lecture hall. When I came to hear a professor lecture, yes, you guessed it, my fingers crept over to the “student responder” and I began to click the keys.

In 2012, however, a long awaited renovation occurred and the responders were gone. Finally.

In the past two years, however, Stanford faculty and administration have been swept up in offering Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The pervasive belief among many faculty including top University administrators is that MOOCs will “revolutionize” U.S. higher education teaching, learning, and college course offerings.  The belief in the power of disruptive technologies such as MOOCs to upend an institution is deep and abiding.

Perhaps there is another reason smart people do dumb things beyond succumbing to sex and power. They are too smart, they are too facile in devising clever responses to turn away arguments, logic, and historical evidence that challenge their beliefs and policies. They then end up doing foolish and even stupid things.


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Lessons Learned from a Career as Practitioner and Scholar

As a high school history teacher for 14 years, an administrator for five years, a district superintendent for seven years, and, finally a university professor for a quarter-century, I have worked in organizations my entire professional life. Here are some lessons I have learned about working in schools, districts, and higher education.

I learned (and, yes, re-learned again and again) that organizations have two kinds of problems:tame and wicked. Tame problems are familiar situations facing both policy makers and practitioners, and for which they have a large repertoire of solutions. Tame problems often involve procedures (e.g., too much classroom time taken in collecting lunch money) and relationships (e.g., dropping a high school student because of too many absences). In most districts, policy manuals lay out step-by step ways of dealing with routine problems. Seldom, however, do those policy manuals or repertoires deal with wicked problems.

Wicked problems are ill defined, ambiguous, and entangled situations packed with potential conflict. For policy makers, wicked problems arise when people compete for limited resources (e.g.,since we cannot fund both the new phonics program and smaller class sizes for K-3, we will have to choose), hold conflicting values (e.g., the superintendent believes that project-based and inquiry driven ways of teaching will eventually lead to higher test scores, but the school board demands immediate results that require teachers to spend more instructional time preparing students for tests).

Unlike tame problems, wicked problems cannot be solved; they can only be managed. For this reason, I called them dilemmas.

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Dilemmas require anguished choices between competing, highly prized values that cannot be simultaneously or fully satisfied.  Consider the options facing those who seek small high school  in districts with large comprehensive high schools. How, for instance, do you break up a big high school into small autonomous learning communities and give parents choices of where to send their children, and still provide efficient school-wide services and retain traditional norms of behavior (e.g., sports, clubs, food service, disciplinary procedures, counselors, etc.) Or consider the abiding dilemma over student test results: How do you raise state test scores  quickly enough to satisfy both supporters and critics of small high schools when growing such innovations is a long-term process yielding a variety of difficult-to-measure student outcomes going well beyond test scores?

Surely, tame problems can involve some degree of conflict. But dilemmas are far messier, less structured, and often intractable to routine solutions. Faced with conflicting but highly desirable options, as a teacher, administrator, and policy maker I often constructed compromises—”good enough bargains”—rather than neat all-encompassing solutions.

Think of a mouse negotiating a maze in search of Gouda and settling for cheddar. That is, when we cannot get the best, good enough is OK. These good-enough bargains, however, to my surprise time and again, had to be renegotiated repeatedly as circumstances and people changed. That is why, more often than not, as a high school teacher, superintendent, and professor I ended up managing recurring dilemmas, not solving problems.

Dilbert

Yet it remains rare for policymakers, practitioners, researchers, and taxpayers to consider this simple distinction between problems and dilemmas. Too often the notion of intractable dilemmas erodes hope and curtails efforts to improve schooling. Not for me. I came to accept the realities of unrelenting conflicts in reforming districts, schools, and classrooms without succumbing to despair or losing hope that better schooling for rich and poor children could happen.

I also learned an important lesson that at the core of every school reform is a solution for a supposed problem. Embedded in that solution (a.k.a. reform) is one or more value-laden beliefs. Many decision-makers latch on to a reform, say, charter schools, mayoral takeovers of big city districts, iPads for kindergartners, or blended learning. These buzz-creating, media-hyped reforms are policy shells that have buried within them a pearl of an idea (posing as a belief or value) fashioned to solve a perennial dilemma. Value-driven beliefs, then, (camouflaged as solutions) do matter when policymakers launch reforms and mobilize-taxpayers, parents, and other constituencies to embrace competing values buried within the reforms.

If value-laden beliefs buried within reforms need to be parsed publicly as dilemmas, so does putting them into practice. Even well planned policy implementation trips over the unanticipated. Most policy makers, I also learned, see implementation as a technical process best handled by subordinates who can work out details, write regulations, and fix problems that arise. As a result, then, policy makers often ignore the practical, emotional, and political realities that sabotage reform-driven policies on their journey into schools and classrooms. They then scramble–to coin a metaphor–to find glasses they think they lost without realizing that the “lost” glasses are perched on their noses.

If some reform-driven policies are ill conceived that is one thing—after all some reforms are simply bad ideas (e.g., paying teachers solely on the basis of their students’ standardized achievement test scores). Other reform-driven policies, however, contain a few good ideas (e.g., equity provisions in No Child Left Behind) but decision-makers fail to anticipate the inevitable value clashes and practical logistics that will occur when dilemma-laden policies enter schools.

And that myopia about on-the-ground implementation is what repeatedly (and shamefully) drives policymakers to grasp at fairy tale solutions like kissing frogs to get princes. I have learned that fairy tale solutions are, well, dreams of make-believe, not real, organizations.

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