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Public Education and Standardized Testing: An Intervention

Before you read any farther, here’s a warning: it might be better if you didn’t read this post.  What I am saying here and (intend to go on saying) is subversive.  It is a challenge to an established absolute in education.  It is dangerous.  However, it has become impossible for me to believe anything different.  I can not remain silent; to do so would be immoral for me.

Fifteen years into my career, perhaps it is no longer necessary to think of myself as a “young” teacher.  I have taught in schools in three states.  Rural and urban.  Rich and poor.  Mostly “language learners”; mostly “free/reduced lunch”; mostly “doing fine, thanks”.  All those schools have some things in common.  As far as I can tell, all schools have some things in common.  To my increasing dismay, the one absolute that is common to every public school everywhere is standardized testing.

Others much more qualified than me have written on the history of standardized testing in the United States.  It is such a hot topic that it makes the news outside educational circles.  Today a wide ranging debate on the place and form of standardized tests is raging.  From my perspective, we aren’t nearly frightened or angry enough.

Although we do our best to deny it – or even to make it untrue – the purpose of school has become to help students get more test SV-AS10 ImageDataquestions right.  All schools write “continuous improvement plans”.  The bottom line of all such plans: help more kids get more test questions right.  There is a hefty list of mandated initiatives/programs/policies that are designed to provide “student academic supports” in dozens of different ways.  What they all have in common: helping students do better on standardized tests.  Listen carefully the next time you hear someone talk about education at any level.  At some point that person will mention needing to “improve” or brag about having “improved” or plans to ensure that schools/students “improve”.  What we always mean by “improvement” is more students getting more test questions right.  When we say a school or a system is “failing” or “struggling” or is a “priority” or “in school improvement”, we mean there aren’t enough students getting enough test questions right.

It is very important to recognize that it is entirely possible to improve test scores without improving learning.  Is is conversely possible to have low test scores that are misleading about the amount of learning (and even achievement) going on in a school.  A student who does very well on a standardized test has probably learned at high levels; a student who does very poorly on a standardized test has probably not learned as much as s/he should have.  The fact is that we can not rely on either assumption to be absolutely correct.  But we do.  We should have an obsessive drive for more learning in all schools.  What we have instead is a relentless pursuit of better test scores.

There was a point at which Public Education had to choose between pursuing more learning and higher test scores.  We chose higher test scores.  We specifically (and often literally) seek to help students pass tests even if they do not learn in the process.  Passing the test is the objective, not learning so much that the test score takes care of itself.  We staff our schools and structure our days and plan our years around the sacred and almighty Standardized Test.  We set aside all other teaching and learning for weeks at a time to prepare for the test.  We contort the entire campus into ridiculous configurations to create the required “testing environment”.  We publish school (and in some states teacher) test results and then base funding and staffing and salary and sanctions and structuring on those results.  There is a growing mandate that teacher’s annual evaluations include their own students’ “achievement” (read standardized test results) as a major component.  In some states those conditions already exist.  On the other hand, we wring our hands (but take no urgent action) when we see no evidence that students are proficient users of technology or effective problem-solvers or accomplished collaborators or highly innovative.  It is permissible for those attributes and skills to be missing because they are not measured on the test.  We know that standardized tests tell only part of the story (when they are accurate at all) yet we make improving students’ performance on them our Prime Directive.

If there was a clear and consistent correlation between test results and learning, this culture would not be as significant a concern for me.  However, the very notion of basing our entire judgement of a student’s (or a school’s) academic proficiency on one test – which includes two hundred multiple choice questions at the most – is simply ludicrous.  This practice is made even more disheartening in light of concerns some (such as Walter Stroup, education profession at the University of Texas at Austin) have raised over whether standardized tests even do what they are supposed to do – measure student learning.  Others (such as Todd Farley, author of Making the Grades) have even suggested that the entire standardized testing industry is little more than a sham; that practices in the industry call the validity of any test results into question.  If these folks are right – if standardized tests are measuring how well students take standardized tests more than how much math they know; if it is not safe to assume that the tests even do what they are designed to do – that raises serious questions for me.  Questions like “why are we even administering standardized tests, let alone putting so much stock in them?”

The most shameful part of the culture of testing undeniably gripping Public Education is the fact that the students who require the most help are almost always hurt by it.  Consider our very common practices.  For a poor student, education is almost certainly the best (or only) way out of poverty.  Learning how to answer test questions correctly is a skill that has almost no application in the “real world”.  Yet poor and under-prepared students are the most likely to be part of “remedial” and “test review” classes in school.  These same students are the least likely to be taught how to think critically, to express themselves cogently, to gain a deep understanding of the ideas that support the facts they are memorizing.  But in the name of “improvement”, we pound them with low-interest, low-relevance, low-yield activities.  They usually score a little bit better on the tests.  But the cost is their opportunity to learn skills and the disciplines of mind that will have any value whatsoever in their future.

While this mindset permeates our entire educational system, comparing schools on extreme ends helps make the point.  Schools that serve primarily middle-class and wealthy students teach them to think deeply.  They have rich learning experiences; they make things; they collaborate; they are the standard-bearers for public education.  When the time for standardized tests comes, these students attend extra-curricular classes (or hire tutors) that train them to perform well on the tests by thinking in a completely different way.  The students learn an entirely separate skill set that they use to ace the tests.  While lots of the knowledge learned in school helps them perform well on the tests, doing well on the test requires a different way of thinking.  They learn that skill, ace the test, and then return to the meaningful learning they had been taught and that will serve them well the rest of their lives.  Schools that serve mostly poor students are very different.  I should know because I spent my entire teaching career in them.  Students who attend these schools can not afford tutors.  They can not stay after school because they have little brothers and sisters to take care of at home and/or jobs to go to.  They don’t have the means of learning two ways to think.  They still have to take the standardized tests.  Their schools are labeled “failing” when they do not do well.  So their teachers spend most of the year teaching them factoids and test-taking strategies.  The really brave and radical ones teach lessons in critical thinking and otherwise try to defy all the mandates to improve scores.  Teaching students to learn (instead of teaching them to answer questions correctly) is often an act of defiance.

These scenarios are not hyperbole or theoretical.  I was one such teacher.  When I was employed in a school system that had a writing sample as a graduation requirement, I taught a class of Seniors who had not yet passed.  Most of my students could not speak English.  But I taught them the formulaic strategies they could use to produce a passing score.  I loved those students and wanted them to graduate; they loved me because most of them passed the writing sample.  I still wonder if they learned anything meaningful about writing or communication or English during that year with me.  And I hate the system that required us to play school.  And still does for millions of students across the country.

Public Education is addicted to standardized testing.  As is the case with most addictions, use in moderation would be fine – probably even healthy.  I begin to believe however that we can not break our addiction by simply resolving to “do better”.  It might be that the only way to save ourselves is to quit cold turkey.  I have had this conversation with dozens of people.  Not one person among them believes we can make standardized testing go away.  Failing that, I have three simple (and extremely difficult) proposals.

  1.  Stop caring about test results.  Choose as a school to become obsessed with more learning.  Focus all your energy on making sure students learn more every day.  Dare to gamble that more learning will result in high test results anyway.  If they don’t, have honest conversations about what the problem is – not enough learning or not enough right test questions.  Then make thoughtful decisions.  Our school has.  It’s working.
  2.  Find another way. I have no problem with accountability.  Each school’s community should hold it accountable to produce very high levels of learning for all students.  But in a world where the collected whole of human knowledge is available at our fingertips every minute of every day, standardized tests are no longer reliable nor sufficient proof of that learning.  Many schools and educators are working on alternative systems of evaluating student learning.  Join the effort.  For this to be a reasonable transformation, we must replace standardized testing with highly accurate, highly descriptive systems that fill the void left and overcome the shortcomings we see now.
  3.  Speak up.  While our continued reliance on standardized testing now has the force of status quo, the number of individuals perpetuating that condition is many hundreds times smaller than the number of individuals who object to it.  The problem is that the largest block of individuals (by far) is silent.  I believe it is simply irresponsible to remain quiet any longer.  For me, it would be immoral to do so.
    Parents, raise your voice and demand that your child’s learning be the highest priority of his/her school.  Ask questions about the evidence of learning that the school offers – whether that evidence be test scores, a portfolio of work, or any other form. Here is a dirty little secret: high test scores guarantee your child nothing.  If you let us get away with teaching your child to ace the test instead of producing mastery level learning, s/he will be the one to pay the price for that charade.
    Teachers, start talking about your practice and your school/system/state policies.  Do they reveal a focus on learning or a focus on a better report card?  I have resolved in my own mind to refuse to participate any longer in any farce about student learning – even if it costs me my job.  I can not sleep at night if I accept a salary in exchange for actions that I know will hurt a child’s future.  Be courageous.
    Administrators, change the culture in your school.  With or without permission.  Protect your teachers when they are teaching at extremely high levels but not complying exactly with a bureaucratic checklist.  Consider which is more important, complying with rules designed to ensure great achievement or actually achieving greatness.
    Policy-makers, please listen to us.  We are not asking to do less work.  We are not asking for easier jobs.  We are not asking for more time.  We are asking you to let us take actions that will in fact accomplish the goals you say we are aiming for.  If you refuse to listen, two outcomes seem very likely to me: many of us will be driven out of the profession entirely and public education will become irrelevant.

For the sake of all our futures, do your part to end this addiction now.  It will be painful, but we can do it.  Here’s how we should start:

“Hi.  My name is Public Education and I’m an addict”

photo credit: COCOEN daily photos via photopin cc

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Best Marking

In a recent conversation with a friend who is in quality control at a local steel plant, he described a process he and his colleges from other plants engage in called “best markinginspection“. Officials from one plant (or many) visit another for the express purpose of learning from their peers. Whenever the guests discover a practice or procedure that is done better or more efficiently than at their home plant they ask lots of questions. The officials at the home plant “give” their innovations to their visitors. This spirit of collaboration always pays off because each plant inevitably learns many lessons in return for each development they share.

As the 2014-2015 school year begins, I am filled with hope due in no small part to the fact that I see a ground-swell of “best marking” in my school, our system and this profession. Never before in my professional career have I seen so many teachers finding ways to make collaborative connections. We have stopped waiting for someone to give us permission to learn from each other and are forging bonds on our own.

I work at a middle school that moved into a building already occupied by an elementary school six years ago. We brought one wing of classrooms with us, but more than our share of traffic. And classes. And hormones. In our struggle to work out how make things work we mostly forgot how privileged we are to work under the same room. We know there are superstars down the hall but we have never taken advantage of that fact.

Until recently.

We decided near the end of last year that we are going to be a family. We’ve got sharing the bathroom and squabbling over who took who’s stuff down pretty well. Now we are going to love each other and have each other’s back and learn from each other like a family does. We’ve been working this summer on some pretty cool plans for this year based on that new commitment. I can’t wait to see how they play out.

For the last ten years, I have worked in a school system that’s probably not that different from yours. We love children and we work very hard every day. We do RTI and IEPs and HALT and CIPs (although we phased out BBSST and ARMT and AHSGE). We want to “do what’s right for kids” and we write our plans to make sure that we do. And what we seem to have missed is that students are not numbers. And that not even the numbers that are true about them are THE truth about them. And we have especially forgotten that among us we have profound insights; and between us we have rich experience; and together we have immense strength and an iron resolve.

Until recently.

Many of us decided to begin learning from each other. We have started driving across town to ask questions. We use social media to share ideas with each other. We work together to plan timely, profoundly relevant professional development. Connections and partnerships are forming across the city. We mean to continue this grassroots effort to learn from each other. I can wait to see how our collaboration plays out.

Until about two years ago I knew less than ten educators from outside my school system. I was part of a landscape of educational silos: most people working in virtual professional isolation. We were all so busy revising our Code of Conduct or our mission statement or the testing schedule that we forgot that the school system in the next county might have an incredible insight to share about a problem we were trying to solve if we would only ask. We went to lots of conferences to hear the experts pontificate on the newest ways to solve the oldest issues but we missed the simple genius of the professional right next door or just across the state line. And we were content to come home and keep our own council about the giants we were facing.

Until recently.

My eyes began to open much later than many of my peers, and it seems to me that more and more educators in this part of the state and across the country (and around the world) are simply and quietly choosing to stop being an island.  I have connected with and had incredibly rich professional conversations with teachers and principals through social media.  Through the power of technology, I have participated in “live” conversations with my peers.  And my story is not unique.  Educators are becoming “connected”.  We are establishing relationships with a whole web of folks who are passionately connected to being better at what we do – we call them professional learning networks.

Our school year begins tomorrow.  We will be granted the opportunity to once again pour all our sweat and wisdom and love into young lives.  For many, we will have the best year of our career specifically because we have finally understood that it does take a village.  Not a conglomeration of loosely affiliated (though geographically contiguous) independent contractors; a tightly woven community of inter-dependent, highly collaborative, philosophically and missionally aligned partners.  It may take us a while to figure out that we all need to make best marking a priority.  From my vantage point, though, the future has never looked so bright.

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DO something

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing”.  I often heard my father use this quote by Edmund Burke in his sermons as part of a repeated call to action.  I wonder today if public educators might need a similar call to action.

It appears that almost everyone in the field of public education believes that things are not as they should be.  We are made to take actions for which we have not been funded, trained or prepared.  We are expected to take on ever-expanding roles without the luxury of more time.  We are governed by decisions about which we were not consulted.  Our unsolicited opinions seem to go unnoticed at best and are punished too frequently.  We are shaping the minds and hearts of the next generation and often feel that the rules of engagement are determined by folks who have never undertaken this task a single day or who have forgotten how hard it is do so.

And yet for all our frustration, we seem convinced that our only choices are to put on a brave face or to complain.  I believe that there are better options.

In the past three weeks, I have visited both my state and the federal capital to speak with legislative IMG_0499representatives.  On both occasions, I was privileged to be part of a delegation from the Alabama National Board Certified Teachers Network.  We engaged these men and women on a range of issues from the significant impact to student learning when the teacher is of National Board Certified to the importance of high instructional standards.  In every meeting I was part of, we were well received.  The folks we were speaking to were attentive; they asked thoughtful questions; many responded with enthusiasm; each thanked us for coming and proposed a continued dialogue.  Our voice certainly seemed to be heard.

In spite of the success of these visits, I am under no delusion that we changed the state in one day or the country in two.  It did become clear to me that there was no reason for me to have waited until my fifteenth year in education to make first contact with a state-level elected official in support of education.  I was also convinced that every teacher deserves a voice in this conversation but must claim that right his/herself.

In no particular order, here are five ideas that might help you find your professional voice and claim a spot in the conversation.

Tell a story.  Someone is talking and writing about your school.  Or about your district.  Or about Public Education.  If that someone is not an educator, chances are they aren’t telling the story the way you know it.  Tell the real story yourself.  Share examples of your students’ successes.  You don’t have to be a “prolific blogger” or a tech guru or a master email writer to begin adding your voice to the conversation.  Just tell about the great learning that is happening in your classroom.  Post pictures of great learning to social media.  Get a twitter account for your classroom and let your students promote their own learning.  Ask to post 30 second videos on your school’s website.  When you are in the grocery store, talk about what is right about your school.

Put students first.  Talk to the people who matter (your community, your board, your legislator, etc) about what students are learning and can do.  Higher pay for teachers is important.  Better benefits and more real influence and a lower (or at least not a higher) co-pay are all issues that need to be addressed.  But we did not get into this profession for any of these things.  And talking about them does not capture anyone’s imagination.  Stories about student successes do.  Share them.  Talk about them first and last and lots in-between.

Build relationships. I spoke with ten or fifteen legislators I had never met when I visited our state capital.  My time was well spent.  I am sure, however, that the person who took me most seriously, took the most notes and made the most concrete plans to act on our conversation was my local representative.  You see, we have a relationship.  He has been in our school.  He attended an entire class last period and then spent most of the teacher’s planning period talking to her.  He stayed the next class period talking to me.  We have corresponded by email since then.  I believe his time in my school and our subsequent conversations laid a foundation of credibility for me.  One teacher can make a difference; it will probably take longer than one day.

Invite decision-makers to visit your classroom/school.  Start with your immediate supervisor and work your way up to the governor … or the president.  For the sake of full disclosure, in my experience a whole lot of folks you invite will not come for one reason or another.  Many will.  If you are changing students’ lives, that is something the people who have a say in how you do your job need to see.  Don’t put on dog and pony shows when you do have visitors.  They may not be teachers, but they know when what they are looking at is not a true “day in the life”.  Your story is good enough without artificial bells and whistles anyway!  A visit to your classroom will probably have a bigger influence on a decision-maker’s opinion than 100 phone calls and emails would.

Be brave.  I am the sworn enemy of the status quo.  For clarity, I have a very deep respect for my forbears and for the pantheon of greatness that has gone before me.  I refuse to accept, however, that those champions of Learning and Education believed that success is achieved by remaining the same in perpetuity.  I mean no disrespect to them when I insist that the innovations of their day must stand aside for the solutions that more fully address the challenges my students face.  I urge you to be courageous for the sake of your students.  Challenge tradition when it gets in the way of student learning.  Wade through the educational jargon and make sure that real and deep learning happens in your classroom.  Refuse to be the slave of a 60 question test.  Be always courageous for the sake of student learning.  In case you haven’t noticed, “innovative” and “intractable” are often used to describe the very same practice.  Have the courage to risk the later in the pursuit of the former.

Perhaps “evil” is too strong a word to describe the challenges that Public Education faces.  On the other hand very little is likely to change if good educators like you and like me take no action to protect our students and their learning.  So today, instead of merely pointing out all that is wrong in public education, do something about it.

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Autonomy vs License

Leadership as a one man show is no longer a viable option.  As I have shared before, leading is not seeking to exert control over others, and great leaders expect honest feedback from those around them.  More succinctly, organizational excellence is not possible in the absence of autonomy.

signHow often though is needed change slowed by the misapplication of superior strategies and paradigms?  The importance of making this point has been driven home for me recently as I observe situations in which a leader promotes the importance of autonomy without maintaining a culture of high standards.  If everyone in an organization makes decisions for him/herself outside the context of a shared standard of excellence, the result is often severely disjointed practice – even chaos.  It is the responsibility of every leader to nurture growth in those around him/her.  To do so requires a dissatisfaction with stagnation and a clear vision of what should/could be.  Permitting poor practice in the name of autonomy – or failing to recognize its existence – is doubly irresponsible.  It abdicates the responsibility of leadership and it undermines the very valid principle being misapplied.

To leaders everywhere: hold tightly to the wheel of change.  Do not swerve to one side or the other.  As regards this part of leadership, nurture and listen to and trust the voice of those around you.  Allow others to have a real and significant say in the decisions that impact them.  But combine this practice with a culture of high expectations.  Ask probing questions.  Expect folks to think deeply about their practice and to be prepared to give an answer to anyone who has questions about it.  Establish a shared definition of excellence together and hold each other accountable for holding your practice at that level.

Autonomy; not license.

photo credit: hockadilly via photopin cc

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Middle School Does Not Suck

When I interviewed for my current position as a middle school principal, there was one fact about myself that I did not make a point of mentioning.  The panel could see on my résumé that I had taught high school for nine years and spent four years as an elementary and high school assistant principal.  What they could not see – and never found out – was that I had never been to middle school.  Any middle school.  I had never had a reason to.  I was home-schooled through 9th grade and had just never gotten around to checking “see what middle schools are like” off my bucket list.

brainAs a career high school educator, I knew all about middle schools though.  Middle school is the holding pen where we store hormones until their brains catch up. Middle school is the place where nobody can think and everybody cuts up.  Middle school is the place where students mysteriously fail to learn the most basic fundamentals of my content area.  Middle school is the place where only very brave (and slightly crazy) teachers work.  Middle school is a place where gum and paper towels in toilets and puberty and puppy-love-turned-earth-shattering-break-up rule the day.  In a word, middle school sucks. Somehow, in spite of my deep-rooted biases, I got the job.

The longer I work in a middle school and interact with my students and collaborate with these amazing teachers, the more convinced I become that the stereotypes about middle school are worse than misleading.  They create an inappropriately imbalanced focus. Maybe my perspective is skewed, but it seems to me that the focus in middle school too often is on minimizing the damage (individually and collectively) until students can be delivered to high school where the road to successful adulthood begins with the installation of a brain.  More plainly, we are content merely to “survive” middle school.  The problem with this approach is that for a great many students, their lack of preparation for high school becomes an obstacle that takes them multiple semesters to overcome.  For far too many, their high school career ends early because they simply can not make the recovery quickly enough.

I say we need to re-imagine – or perhaps just acknowledge – the importance of middle school.  We have placed a huge burden – and most of the focus – on high school in regards to student success.  Graduation rates – high school problem.  Dropouts – high school problem.  Graduates unprepared for college and the work force – high school problem.  Almost without exception, students are required by law to attend school throughout their middle school years.  High schools are often guaranteed only one year with students who start off behind.  Having been a high school teacher my entire career, that time frame is simply not long enough.

I have a new perspective to propose.  High schools make graduates; middle schools make dropouts.

I am not suggesting that we start blaming middle schools and looking for new ways to put pressure on them – like we have been doing to high schools for years.  What we should do is begin thinking of middle school as critically important to each child’s future.  The emotional and physical and social stress of the middle school years is well documented.  What if we saw middle school as the time to stay engaged as a learner, to define a strong identity and to make meaningful contributions to society?

So many have been middle level educators much longer than I have and are already champions of this argument.  To their voices I add these few specific suggestions in no particular order.

1.  Electives are critical.  One unfortunate and very damaging impact of the “accountability era” has been the frequent decision to add remediation and intervention courses to school schedules by removing electives.  This decision is made in spite of the fact that many elective classes might already do what the classes that replace them are supposed to do.  For example, research suggests a link to increased test scores for students who participate in Fine Arts classes.  Incidentally, that same body of research suggests that the benefits of taking these courses extend far beyond raised tests scores.  While some may question the validity of this research and insist that additional time in Language Arts and Math yields better results in those subjects, it is impossible to argue that the benefits of taking highly engaging elective classes are lost by not taking them.  More plainly, students who are enrolled in strong elective classes are more engaged in all parts of the school experience.  The Fine Arts are exceptionally valuable to students who take them, but so are other high-interest courses.  Of particular appeal to students are courses that provide opportunities to combine complicated thinking with real-world applications – such as Robotics and a host of other similar courses.  Although elective classes are critical in high school as well, they might easily be the key to keeping middle school students engaged in their learning at an age when all students struggle to find value in school. If we are to prepare students for the future that awaits them just around the corner, we must recognize the fact that more time on a couple of subjects and more pressure applied will not result in more learning; it might result in less.

2.  Hands-on learning should be the default approach.  Another victim of the era of high-stakes testing has been an emphasis on hands-on learning.  A great value has been placed on accumulating knowledge in school – and on proving that accumulation via test scores, both at a classroom level and via standardized tests.  What we have valued far less is providing students rich learning experiences aimed at doing.  We are content with reading and writing about decomposition instead of pulling apart a rotting log to see it for ourselves.  Students experience so few hands-on learning opportunities that the ones that they do have become the defining moments of the course – the (single) dissection of a frog in Science; the (only) letter written to the mayor or governor or author in Language Arts; the (possibly somewhat frowned upon) detailed budget created for an imaginary trip in Math; or the (brazenly controversial) class debate about a high interest current event in Social Studies.  Why must we be defensive when we create learning experiences for students?  What makes us think that sitting quietly in neat rows will result in more learning than putting our learning into practice?  I contend that a major purpose of learning is to put that learning into practice in some way.  Further (or perhaps because of that fact) we learn best when our learning is experiential.  If the education we are offering students is to be useful to them, we must stop behaving as if the application of their learning need not happen until they have left us for the “real” world.

3.  Student voice must be nurtured.  Helping students find and use their voice is important at all grade levels.  To students struggling with the physical and emotional maelstrom that is middle school, it is vital.  I have contended elsewhere that school administrators must not only permit but nurture teachers’ voice.  In the same way, for students to reach their maximum potential, they must be co-creators of their own learning experiences.  Students should be permitted to make decisions about their own learning.  Students should be one of the most important “stakeholder” groups, invited individually and collectively to wield real influence on the decision-making process.  Students should be invited to sit on interview committees (as they frequently do at our school).  Students should be given opportunities to express their ideas to real audiences of more than one – they should write and create for more than just their teacher.  Middle school students should treated as if they are capable of complex thinking and their opinions matter.  What better way to prepare students to contribute meaningful to a democratic society than giving them opportunities to make such contributions now?

This post is intended especially for three special groups of people and to each I address these following appeals.

Pre-service teachers: don’t believe the hype.  Middle school is not objectively more challenging than any other teaching.  For every problem unique to middle school, there is a benefit also unique to this age group.  While we have our issues, there is a long list of obstacles that elementary and high school teachers face (unique to each level) that is irrelevant to middle school.  You may personally not be a good fit more middle school.  Don’t go into the decision assuming you are not, however.

Educational decision-makers (board members, superintendents, Central Office personnel): don’t allow our passion for increasing graduation rates lead to decisions that short-change middle school students.  High schools need lots of support and attention.  Elementary schools need to provide students with a great foundation.  Middle schools are incredibly complex organizations serving even more complex human beings.  Do not let simplistic stereotypes drive the decisions you make about us.

Middle school educators: don’t listen to people who don’t know what they are talking about.  You are not crazy for teaching at this level.  You fill an absolutely essential role.  You have the opportunity to keep inspire students to stay invested in their own learning.  For students surrounded by endless hints and clues and outright attacks to the effect that neither they nor their opinions matter, your faith and acceptance makes it possible to believe a different narrative; in spite of all the stereotype and hype and self-doubt to the contrary, middle school does not suck.

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One Focus

During a conversation with an influential member of our community and personal friend this week, I shared in passing my long-held theory that all schools must have a single focus if they are to achieve and sustain excellence.  We spoke about the tendency of many organizations to continually seek new ways to improve (good) by adopting more and more programs (okay) that are never clearly connected to each other (counter-productive).

The problem is not that we are tackling too many of the problems we face nor that we are using multiple strategies to pursue growth.  It is that our efforts are far too often disjointed.  My friend summed up our conversation and our concern in one short phrase: origin_9112507763“We are pushing too many buggies”.  Each time we think of something else important we add a protocol or a policy or a weekly task to our existing list.  When as schools do we have conversations designed to ensure that everything we do is aligned to our overarching purpose?  When do we announce that we will be discontinuing Initiative X because it has served its purpose or is redundant of Project Y?  If schools must do so many different things in order to serve students well (and there is no question that we must), would we not better position ourselves to be successful if we built a conceptual framework to understand how everything we do fits together to support our mission?

I propose that in order to become great, schools need to choose a single focus.  One something that defines who they are.  An identity on which to hang everything that is part of being a school.  I believe that having such a focus is more important that what that focus is.  In other words, while there are plenty of things too narrow to support an entire school culture (like “Clean Bathrooms.  Every Stall, Every Day”) there is not only one “right” focus for schools.  For example, the middle school where I work has chosen a deep and practical understanding of assessment and grading as the focus of our shared learning.  We have chosen to make that area of expertise “the thing” for us.  Because classroom assessment is such a fundamental issue, our learning in this area is impacting every other part of the school culture – it is changing our school.  Although we have chosen this course, I continue to be convinced that we could just as easily have chosen a different path.  Last summer I had the privilege of visiting Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina as a member of a team from our school system for the purpose of learning more about their 1 to 1 technology initiative.  Among the many things I learned those few days was the fact that when their school system set out to put technology in the hands of each child, what happened in the process was a radical change to the way they approached teaching and learning.  Collaboration changed.  Approaches to grading and assessment changed.  Lesson planning and communication strategies and student voice and scores of other details about the schools changed as a result of an unwavering commitment to achieving their goal.  In fact, by focusing on one thing, they were able to grow in many different areas because their work was aligned to one purpose.

The truth is everything we do in school is interconnected.  If our planning and our work fails to consider the interconnectedness of each part of what we do, that work will inevitably become a jumble of disjointed pieces – confusing and overwhelming at best; working at cross purposes and self-defeating at worst.  I do not make this proposal lightly.  To successfully adopt such a singular focus in a school requires effective leadership, a strong culture, shared decision-making, and a willingness to be highly reflective and honest about the way things are as a faculty … among other factors.  On the other hand introducing an unending parade of programs, protocols and policies is much more easy – and probably expected.  But doing so can not result in a sustainable culture of excellence.

I am practitioner, not an expert in organizational leadership.  Having said that, this approach is working for our school.  We articulated and agreed on a vision of where we were going from the beginning.  None of us anticipated the path we have taken, though.  We are even now discussing what our next steps will be.  We maintain our focus and see the goal, but there is no magical formula to follow.  Here though are some of the (non-magical, non-formulaic, not guaranteed) steps we took as a school to make the implementation of this philosophy work for us over the last several years.
1.  Laying the Foundation.  During my first year as principal we engaged in countless formal and informal discussions about ourselves.  We talked about what kind of school we want to be and how exactly we might get there.  As part of that discussion I proposed studying grading and assessment together.  No program.  No mandate.  No timeline.  Just a challenge.
2.  Teacher Leadership and Buy-In.  During the summer after my first year, we held a retreat for all the faculty leaders.  We studied several resources on the topic of grading and assessment.  At the end of the retreat I asked the team to decide whether to propose grading and assessment to the faculty as our long-term focus or not.  When they decided to do so, we all immediately became co-planners in the process.  The teacher leaders presented the majority of the proposal to the rest of the faculty.
3.  Digging into the Idea.  That summer the faculty agreed to participate in book studies to begin learning about this topic together.  Again, there was a specific item on the agenda of that faculty meeting to choose between “Yes, Let’s Move Forward” or “No, Let’s Hold Off on this Decision”.  We had a back-up plan in case the faculty decided to wait.  The fact that each teacher chose to join the process made the learning that occurred that year much more meaningful.
4.  Articulate Your Position.  By the end of that school year, the faculty had proposed, drafted, discussed, modified and “ratified” a position statement on our shared learning.  We wrote a Grading Manifesto.  In the context of this process, it was a formal declaration of our focus as a school.  We chose to make this the central focus of our learning.  Every certified employee’s Professional Learning Plan (teacher and administrator alike) includes the actions and activities he/she has chosen to continue learning about assessment.  A copy of the manifesto (signed by everyone) hangs in the front office.
5.  Long-term Commitment to Learning.  As I hinted at earlier, we are not following a script.  We are taking each next step based on an evaluation of where we are, where we are going and our determination of the best possible way to get there, based on what we know right now.  For example, every teacher is part of a formal Professional Learning Group this year.  By the end of the year, every teacher will have spent at least five pull-out days learning with grade level and department groups.  We are planning an in-house workshop/EdCamp/mini-conference for this summer.  We are discussing what the step will be after that.  It will depend of what we know and what we need to learn next.  What we are firmly committed to is maintaining the same focus we have had.

Our story is not over yet.  I have lived enough of it, however, to be fully convinced that we would be a much different school if we did not have one idea that we consider central to who we are.  I have heard and been part of enough other stories to believe that we are not unique.

Meaningful change and growth take time.  When radical change happens rapidly, it is either superficial or damaging.  Be patient.  Choose a focus.  Make a commitment.  Become experts.  Schools that have a strong central identity will determine how all the minutia connected to education fits together – and in so doing will be much more successful at the entire process than those operating from program to program.

*For my Yankee friends, buggies are what we use to collect groceries here in the South.

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Common Core: We are Having the Wrong Debate

An Open Letter to Alabama Legislators

Dear Policymakers,

As you are certainly aware by now, a new set of instructional standards in Mathematics and Language Arts (called Common Core State Standards) have been written and adopted by many states.  If you are unfamiliar with the reasons for drafting these instructional standards or with the process, I will leave that explanation to others.  You must already know that Alabama’s decision to adopt these standards – as part of the Alabama College and Career Ready Standards (CCRS) – has become the topic of a great deal of concern, debate and (some would say) controversy.  origin_125489887Note: I will continue to refer to the Common Core throughout this letter with the caveat that I am referring to Alabama’s adoption – CCRS.  In spite of my efforts through parent informational meetings, information posted on our school website and the work done by our school system to provide our community with context and details to understand the shift to Common Core standards (which took place officially last year for Mathematics and this year for Language Arts), some parents continue to express concerns about this decision.  More frustrating for me is the fact that many parents are not expressing concerns but make comments in passing that reveal that they have a very inaccurate understanding of what this shift means.  Unfortunately, this issue which should be purely academic seems to be turning into a political one.  Opinions ranging from misinformed to wildly inaccurate to conspiracy theories are bombarding our community.  I assume that some (if not many) of the members of the community (and others around the state) are contacting you with these concerns.  More than one has communicated to me a hope that Alabama will withdraw from the Common Core.  I am writing today in the hopes that one building principal’s perspective will be helpful as you carefully consider this issue.  Here are three facts I believe are important for you to know.

1.  The Common Core are instructional standards only.  The thread that runs most commonly through the concerns I hear is based on a misunderstanding of this fact.  Instructional standards describe the academic skills and concepts that students should learn.  They do not prescribe content – such as specific books that must be read.  They do not prescribe how to teach – such as how fast to go or which resources to use or what order to go in.  They do not prescribe the teaching of any cultural or political or religious ideologies.  The confusion on this point is understandable: schools and school systems do make decisions about which resources to use and what order to go in and which books to buy.  Educators draft lists that they believe lend themselves to teaching to the level of understanding prescribed by the Common Core.  These actions are right and good.  They are cause for differences of opinion, which should result in honest discussions and consensus at a local level.  Blaming any of this on the Common Core is an act of great dishonesty by those who know better.  Think of industry standards in any other profession – we do not blame the standard of excellence when individual companies make unethical decisions or change their product in the pursuit of those standards.  Neither should we blame Common Core for the decisions local schools and school systems make.

2.  The Common Core raises expectations.  With respect to the concerned and well-meaning folks I know who have repeated the notion that the Common Core lowers academic expectations for students, this idea is simply ludicrous.  In my opinion, the only way to hold this position is to be unfamiliar with the standards themselves or with the instructional standards they replaced.  Any public educator who takes this position is engaging in intellectual dishonesty.  To anyone who has this concern, I strongly recommend the rich set of resources accessible on the Alabama Department of Education website (and linked here).  Of particular interest might be documents that provide a side by side comparison between (the former) Alabama Math and Language Arts standards and the Common Core.  Let me highlight just one 7th grade math standard as an example.  The instructional standard used to read as follows: “Identify whether a number is rational or irrational”.  The corresponding Common Core standard that replaces it reads in part: “Apply and extend previous understanding of operations with fractions to add, subtract, multiply and divide rational numbers.”  How is it possible to claim that a shift from accurately identifying something to using that same thing in complex ways is a lowering of expectations?  I boldly claim that if a lowering of expectations for students does happen anywhere, it is in no way because the standard for learning described in the Common Core caused such a decline.

3.  Common Core and standardized testing are two separate issues.   Standardized testing is an issue about which we should be having a discussion.  I am very strongly of the opinion that we have allowed our schools to become aligned to the wrong objective.  In the name of raising standards, we have been spending the majority of our efforts on raising test scores over the last decade.  The cost of that focus has been meaningful student learning.  Here’s the problem: more learning (usually) results in better test scores but better test scores don’t necessarily prove more learning has happened.  When it was time for us to choose between more learning and higher test scores, we chose better test scores.  We have been talking as if those two things are the same for so long that is doesn’t even occur to most people to see a difference.  When critics of the Common Core warn of new and terrible testing regimens, that assumption is completely reasonable.  For many school systems, adopting the Common Core will result in the adopting of new tests.  Because the Common Core is more demanding, the new tests will almost certainly be more demanding.  However, the mentality that says that the only way to know that students are learning is to put a multiple choice test in front of them is the culprit in this scenario, not the Common Core.  To be absolutely clear, I believe that we need the level of expectations Common Core lays out and we need to shift away from our obsession with standardized tests.  I am aware that some of my colleagues do not share this position – some because they disagree but many because they simply do not believe it is possible to shake free of the culture of testing.  I believe we can not afford to abandon the Common Core and that we can also not afford to continue making better test scores the purpose of school.

I have heard other objections to Common Core.  Some frequently repeated include the following: it is a thinly veiled attempt to enrich curriculum developers, textbook companies, and standardized test writers; it is a conspiracy for indoctrinating a generation with a liberal worldview; it is a usurpation of the states’ right to design and provide a free, public education; it kills creativity; it robs teachers of the freedom to make decisions about their teaching, etc, etc.  To all these I say there is a difference between the instructional standards that are the Common Core and the choices that local schools and school systems make to implement them.  These issues may indeed be pitfalls associated with Common Core, but they can all be avoided with good decision-making.

To each of you tasked with making legislative decisions on behalf of the citizens of our great state, I make this simple appeal: refuse to let the debate over the Common Core continue to be a political issue.  We should be discussing these concerns.  No change of this magnitude should be made without a great deal of open dialogue, including honest dissent.  However, using the Common Core as the instructional standard in our schools will only be a political issue if we continue to let it be one.  Each community should hold its educators accountable to make good decisions.  Please do not bow to the pressure you are feeling to force a withdrawal from the Common Core.  Please do talk to educators.  It is our job to know what the Common Core is; we would love to talk to you about it.  Our students deserve to be taught at high levels.  The Common Core describes exactly that kind of high expectation.  Whether or not you represent the citizens my school serves, it would be my honor to speak to any of you interested in a more in-depth conversation regarding this issue.  You can reach me via email at  Thank you in advance for your careful consideration of these ideas.

To anyone reading this who is not a legislator, I make this appeal: find out what the Common Core (the standards) really are.  Engage the educators in your community in a discussion about this topic.  Ask what is being done to implement these instructional standards and what will be done in the future.  Form an opinion about the standards and about the way your school and school system is implementing them.  Speak to your representative.  Encourage educators from your neighborhood to do the same thing.  Most importantly, insist that your school sets high standards and helps all students reach them.  Your child deserves such a school.  All children do.

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Dumbledore as an Example of an Effective (School) Leader – Part III

Whether you have read the Harry Potter series or not, you probably know this much about them: the title character is a school-aged wizard-in-training destined (and expected) to defeat the ultimate bad guy: Lord Voldemort.  What you may not have considered before, even if you have read the books, is that Harry’s mentor, Professor Albus Dumbledore is a model of effective leadership: particularly educational leadership.  Several of the characteristics that make him a leader were the subject of Part I and Part II in this series.  Three more of Dumbledore’s leadership characteristics are highlighted here in this third and final installment.

Dumbledore is not tempted by wealth or power.  From my perspective, access to power and the offer of wealth are inducements to compromise one’s good judgement which are not easily ignored.  Somehow, he does ignore these temptations though.  He is offered the position of Minister of Magic multiple times but steadfastly refuses.  Although that position would afford him much greater power, Dumbledore is convinced that his place is at Hogwarts and is not swayed by this offer of power.  Even without this official appointment, Dumbledore has great power and influence but chooses to use it sparingly.  He is the Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, but does not use that position to his own advantage.  He comes into possession of the Sorcerer’s stone but chooses not to claim the immortality that it offers.  By the end of the series, it becomes clear that he owns the Elder Wand – the most powerful of all wands – but does not flaunt its power whatsoever.  As Dumbledore is a human being, he must certainly be tempted by these enticements.  Indeed there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he is definitely flawed as both a leader and as a man.  He seems to recognize fully, however, that great leaders draw away from wielding the influence of their wealth and power as they acquire more.  They are not seduced nor driven by a quest to accumulate either.  

newspaperOne of the most inspiring points I see in Dumbledore is the fact that he is not distracted or swayed by “scandal” or bureaucratic pressure.  He continues teaching and leading Hogwarts in the way he believes to be best in spite of pressure from the Board of Governors.  In fact, he is temporarily removed from his position as Headmaster because he refuses to implement policies that he believes to be harmful to his students.  Dumbledore also ignores frequent (and ludicrous) attacks in the newspaper.  While it is unclear how the criticism and accusations and lies make him feel, they do nothing to deter him from the actions he knows to be right for his students.  Even the Ministry of Magic does its best to control Dumbledore through pressure, slander, and even the threat of sanctions and arrest.  While he gives ground in some cases, Dumbledore never compromises in spite of the pressure he faces from the central office, the government and the media.

One final characteristic that I admire in this leader, is his refusal to take himself too seriously.  In spite of the fact that he is the world greatest wizard he has an acute sense of humor.  Throughout the series, this attitude of whimsical joyfulness is most often his default mood and masks nearly entirely the staggering depth of knowledge and the awesome power that he possesses.  He sets silly passwords to protect the door to his office.  He is aware of student fads, particularly the light-hearted (if officially banned) practices students are fond of.  Even at official functions, like the start of term feasts he is so unpretentious as to keep his speeches extremely short, including one that was famously only three words long.  When set beside government officials and professors and even muggles who are filled with self-importance, Dumbledore provides by sharp contrast an example of a healthy sense of humor and self-image.

There are other characteristics of an effective leader easily seen in Dumbledore: courage, decisiveness, delegation of responsibility, time management, vision-casting, clear and effective communication, and many more.  Perhaps those can be the focus of another discussion.  In the meantime, for me, there can be no doubt that whether J.K. Rowling has studied the characteristics of an effective leader or not, Albus Dumbledore is an example of a highly effective leader – particularly in the areas of school leadership.  Even as a fictional character, he models for me a combination of qualities and approaches to leadership that I find to be worth studying and aspiring to acquire.

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Dumbledore as an Example of an Effective (School) Leader – Part II

In the first part of this series, I proposed the idea that Professor Albus Dumbledore is more than an authority figure to serve as a backdrop against which Harry Potter’s character develops – he embodies a strong leader to match (and mentor) the hero Harry becomes.  Dumbledore is devoted to a life of learning, is committed to the pre-eminence of learning over compliance, and is dedicated to the belief that learning rarely happens in the midst of chaos.  To these strong leadership qualities, Dumbledore adds the following.

Dumbledore places a strong emphasis on recruitment and personnel development.  He only hires the best teachers.  Minerva McGonagall is arguably the best teacher portrayed in the Harry Potter series.  She demonstrates a deep knowledge of her content area, is a very skillful classroom instructor, builds positive relationships with students, never acts out of bias or shows favoritism, and holds students to high standards.  She serves as Dumbledore’s Deputy Headmistress – a testament to her own leadership abilities.  In Professor McGonagall we see an example of a consummate professional.  From my perspective, the only reason that an individual of McGonagall’s extensive abilities works as a teacher at all is because of the leadership of Dumbledore.  She could easily hold any of a number of other positions, but believes in the vision of Dumbledore so much that she dedicates a lifetime of service to educating the young.  snapeAnother example of Dumbledore’s dedication to developing those around him is Severus Snape.  Although he is frequently in conflict with Harry and often appears to be in league with Voldemort, Snape is nevertheless in point of fact unrivaled at his craft.  Although he covets the Defense Against the Dark Arts position, his mastery of Potions is so prodigious that several teachers (including Professor Dumbledore) seek his assistance when they want to be absolutely sure of getting a potion right.  Dumbledore keeps him on as a teacher even when their pedagogical practices do not align perfectly.  Through the course of their relationship, Dumbledore serves as a mentor to him and shapes the course of his career (and life) significantly.  Another example of Dumbledore’s drive to assemble the best possible team is Rubeus Hagrid.  While most other Headmasters would not likely have permitted someone who had been expelled from school and had his wand broken to be their gamekeeper, Dumbledore sees great value and potential in Hagrid.  Who else would have the passion and willingness to handle all the dangerous and sensational magical beasts that Hagrid does?  As Harry and his friends find out, hands-on learning is much more meaningful than learning from a book in most subject areas.  When it comes to magical beasts, Hagrid’s abilities give all his students valuable knowledge and experiences that they are unlikely to have gained without him.  There are many other examples of Dumbledore’s commitment to hiring only the best – Alastor “Mad Eye” Moody, the best of the Aurors; Firenze, the ultimate Divination teacher; Professor Sprout, Herbology teacher extraordinaire; Professor Binns, the ghost who teaches history; etc, etc.  Dumbledore knows that an exemplary school requires an excellent team; his own proficiencies are not enough.  By recruiting and growing a team around him, he makes Hogwarts a school without parallel.

Professor Dumbledore always treats others with respect.  This is a leadership quality much more easily identified than exemplified.  It is particularly difficult (in my experience) to treat others with dignity and respect when you know that they are actively seeking to undermine your success and that of your organization.  Dumbledore does exactly that, though.  He speaks respectfully and graciously to Draco Malfoy at all times, even when Malfoy makes it his business to antagonize Harry Potter.  There is no change in this tone even when Malfoy comes to kill Dumbledore.  Dumbledore is courteous to Lucius Malfoy, even when he orchestrates Dumbledore’s removal as headmaster.  Dolores Umbrage, through her actions, severely disrupts learning at Hogwarts and actively persecutes Harry Potter and his friends.  In spite of all that, Professor Dumbledore insists on treating her too with great dignity.  But perhaps most notable is Dumbledore’s interactions with Tom Riddle.  As a young teacher at Hogwarts, Dumbledore taught a young man who would eventually choose a path that led to his becoming the most powerful dark wizard.  During his school days, Dumbledore suspected that Riddle had been doing evil things and knew that he was keeping secrets.  Even this very troubled young man who would allow his pain to twist him into a tortured adult could never honestly say that he was ignored or belittled or disrespected by Albus Dumbledore.

Professor Dumbledore is humble.  In spite of the fact that he has legitimately earned a lengthy list of titles and built an unparalleled resume, he is addressed simply as “professor” by his student and as “Albus” by his teachers.  When considered in contrast to so many who insist on the use of the proper honorific by those around them, this practice is even more refreshing.  In spite of his vast knowledge and rich experiences, Dumbledore is known for his short speeches.  Not only does he avoid bloviating publicly, Dumbledore does not even mention his own exploits or use much of his power except at great need and almost never publicly.  In fact, the majority of his power remains cloaked from his students to the point that at least one of them foolishly concludes that his own feeble abilities are a match for this great wizard’s.  In spite of his great power though, and as further proof of his humility, Dumbledore is not too proud to ask for help.  He seeks assistance from his teachers, from outcast wizards, from men and women who doubt themselves and their own abilities, from children, and from ordinary muggles.  He never, ever casts himself as a one-man act.  His humility keeps him from challenging Voldemort in open combat.  Although he is the most powerful wizard in the world, Dumbledore does not let that cloud the fact that it is not his destiny to defeat the Dark Lord.  He pours all he can into preparing Harry to fill that role instead.

If you have enjoyed either or both of the first two posts in this series, the third post  has aparated here.

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Dumbledore as an Example of an Effective (School) Leader – Part I

As a Language Arts teacher, I considered teaching students to think deeply about what they read a very serious responsibility.  I continue to believe that critical thinking is the single most important lesson students can learn from us.  Either from a devotion to developing this skill in myself or because I am afflicted by the very human drive to make meaning of everything around me, I love the richness of literature and often seek to discover significance where others may not see it.  In that vein, and at the risk of crediting authorial intent and genius where it may or may not be intended, I submit that Professor Albus Dumbledore provides a model of a leadership (particularly school leadership) worthy of emulation.  A colleague once suggested that I may share some characteristics with Dumbledore.  The truth is that it would give me great pleasure to be considered half the leader I believe him to be.

origin_5190050734 (1)In case you have not read the Harry Potter books, Professor Dumbledore is the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where Harry attends school.  Dumbledore’s other positions, accomplishments, and honors are too many to list here.  He plays a significant role in a story centered around a student at his school precisely because he takes the time to know and develop a relationship with his students.

What follows are a few of the practices and characteristics that make him such an effective school leader.

Professor Dumbledore is a learning leader.  The role of principal has shifted significantly in the last decade.  Most have abandoned the view that values managerial prowess as the ultimate qualification.  A deep understanding of teaching and learning has emerged as most critical instead.  As the reasoning goes, a principal must be the “chief learner” in his/her school – the one who leads by the example of being most dedicated to advancing his/her own learning.  In a story full of students and of avid learners, Dumbledore is arguably the most dedicated learner of all.  For example, throughout the series, he seeks relentlessly to understand history.  He interviews “witnesses” to events that appear to be important; he “collects” memories for further study; he pores over ancient texts and rumors and legends.  Near the end of the story, his study of the nature, creation, identity, and location of “horcruxes” – the magical objects created by the antagonist Lord Voldemort in an attempt to achieve immortality – becomes a major focus of his efforts.  He commits himself – at great cost – to a high level of learning.  In a school full of learners, he models an unparalleled commitment to learning.  Even more impressive than his commitment to the study of magical history is his dedication to understanding “muggles” – non-magical human beings.  In fact, one of the great contrasts between Professor Dumbledore and Lord Voldemort is their respective view of muggles. Voldemort disdains them – when he does not hate them – and considers learning about them beneath his dignity.  Dumbledore respects muggles, does everything within his considerable power to protect them, and commits himself to learning as much as possible about them.  On the checklist of qualities that make a great leader, the box next to “committed to learning” is definitely marked for Albus Dumbledore.

Professor Dumbledore values learning more than rules.  In my experience, many educators act as if the enforcement of school rules is their most important job.  It is distressing (and frankly confusing) to me that we so often deprive students of the opportunity to learn for violating rules designed to ensure that they stay engaged in learning – like when we suspend students for being tardy to class.  I believe that it is critical to remember that the rules we establish in schools serve our main focus – learning.  Professor Dumbledore seems to operate from a similar belief.  He nurtures Harry’s growth even when Harry runs afoul of school rules.  From early in his first year, Harry frequently finds himself on the wrong side of school rules.  His transgressions come mostly in the course of protecting his friends or fighting against the Dark Lord but he does in fact break the rules fairly regularly.  From being “out of bounds” at every turn to sneaking into faculty members’ offices to crashing a flying car onto school’s lawn – Harry just can’t seem to obey the rules consistently.  Dumbledore knows of Harry’s indiscretions.  He frequently witnesses them; they are also reported to him by members of the faculty and staff and he is urged to apply strong sanctions.  While he does threaten to expel Harry if he doesn’t toe the line, he makes Harry’s learning a much higher priority than Harry’s obedience.  On more than one occasion, when he could be punishing him, Dumbledore chooses instead to teach Harry.  You see, Dumbledore knows that an ability to follow rules will not be adequate preparation for the future that Harry will face.  While a total disregard for order within the school environment would be harmful to his growth, a rigid conforming to the rules would not have prepared Harry for the feats he accomplishes.  Dumbledore allows Harry (and other students) to make mistakes – and even bend the rules – so that they can continue learning.

… but does not stop others from enforcing rules.  While school rules are subservient to student learning, they are not valueless.  Great schools do not spend a huge amount of time enforcing petty rules, but their students adhere to expectations anyway.  Great leaders do not cast themselves as disciplinarians, but they do ensure that there is order within their schools.  Dumbledore may not have spent his time handing out detentions or deducting house points from mischievous children, but he also does not stop others from enforcing the rules.  Professor Severus Snape very aggressively pursues the enforcement of school rules – frequently with undue relish.  Mr. Argus Filch (caretaker/custodian) has whole filing cabinets full of disciplinary files and begs Dumbledore to reinstate the more severe forms of punishment.  Dolores Umbridge is so devoted to rules that she makes up new ones and creates squads of students deputized to rat on their classmates for any violation of her ever increasing list of commandments.  Throughout Dumbledore’s tenure as headmaster, he does not stop others from enforcing school rules.  True, he prohibits Filch from torturing students; and he does not expel Harry as Snape urges; and he leaves the school (temporarily) when Umbridge goes too far in her zeal.  He focuses his efforts on teaching and learning, but he does not treat school rules with disrespect nor does he ask teachers to let students ignore them.  Even when Harry is assigned to unfair and even cruel punishments, Dumbledore does not overturn them.  He knows that the only thing more dangerous than a mindless enforcement of the rules is a wanton disregard for them.

Part II describes more leadership traits that Professor Dumbledore models.

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