Loose and Tight Leadership

Clay, Soldwedel and Many in Aligning School Districts as PLCs:

Loose and tight leadership is based on the premise that relying exclusively on either a tight "top-down" or a loose "bottom-up" leadership approach is not effective.  Fullan (2009) has said: "Top-down change doesn't work because it fails to garner ownership, commitment, or even clarity about the nature of the reform.  Bottom-up change -- so-called let a thousand flowers bloom -- does not produce success on any scale.  A thousands flowers do not bloom and those that do are not perennial."  The implication is that a balance between loose and tight provides an optimum leadership style.  Of course, getting that balance right is the challenge." (p. 24)
In the district I work at, I believe we value bottom-up ideas, however there's not enough time in the day (nor is it realistic) to seek input on every single decision.  I'm not naive enough to think I am a part of the ideal tight-loose leadership model in action, however I thought of a few examples that lead me to believe we're on the right track.

  • Requiring all teachers to be a part of a collaborative team
    • providing the teams with time to meet during the contract day twice per month.
    • asking teams to set a SMART goal for the year within the framework of our district and building goals
  • Requiring teams to create agendas and minutes every time they meet
    • providing teams with Google Docs so that agendas and minutes can be created on the fly, accessible to building and district administrators, rather than requiring extra paperwork to turn in.
    • providing self-paced Google Docs tutorials and help sessions.  
This is not an all-encompassing list.  I'm curious to learn from readers of this blog.  How is your building/district leadership exemplifying (or not) simultaneous loose and tight leadership?

If I were teaching math in a 1:1 environment...

I'd load up with...

Commercial software:
  • Geometer's Sketchpad - can be used for more than just Geometry, too
  • Fathom - dynamic data -- can be used in cross-discipline projects, too
  • Logger Lite/Pro - science folks likely know about this software already
  • For writing tests, etc. use MathType
Free software:
  • Geogebra
  • Any blogging platform - ask students to explain some of the big ideas of the class.  Karl Fisch is doing this with his students. 
Big teaching ideas:
Anything you'd add to the list?

Rethink Assessment

10/25/2011 Update
The video below is designed to be used with teachers and administrators to discuss shifts in grading.

Note: the footage was used at a technology-related learning conference, so some of the questions posed have this context in mind.

4/20/2011 Update
Slides used in today's presentation

The script used today can be found here.

Both are available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Video footage is currently being edited and will be posted here once it is available. 
See 10/25/2011 update


Russ and I have been invited to co-facilitate a morning session at the Iowa 1:1 Institute to be held April 20, 2011 at the Polk County Convention Center.  All I can say right now is that it's going to be a unique session.  The trailer below tells the rest of the story.  

Professional Learning Feedback: Asking the Right Questions

I've written several times about the importance of feedback as a classroom teacher.  I'm a big fan of using feedback from teachers to improve future professional learning as an administrator, too.   Just like the classroom setting, it's not easy crafting the right kind of questions for adults either.  Here are a few likert scale statements that have solicited valuable insights in the past.

  • The facilitator was effective in his/her role (Were the people leading the learning doing a good job?)
  • I believe there will be adequate follow-up from my colleagues related to this learning (Is there an underlying belief this was a one-and-done learning opportunity or will it be sustainable?)
  • I believe there will be adequate follow-up from building/district administrators related to this learning? (Will the administration be a viable support system or was this an isolated waste of time?)
  • I believe this learning will directly benefit my students (Perhaps one of the most important questions - Do staff members feel what they learned today will help the students they teach?)
Here is one open-ended questions that seemed to resonate with staff members.
What should our district's next steps be related to ________________? (This question has helped our leadership team get a better sense for the desire of the entire staff)

Finally, this is an open-ended question I've used with mixed results.
Please add constructive feedback related to this professional learning experience

I'd like to do a better job receiving feedback from teachers so that our leadership team can be even more focused in our future professional learning planning.  I believe one way we can improve is by taking a careful look at the questions asked of our staff.  What questions is your building, district or leadership team using?  What questions have I missed?  Leave them in the comments below.

Are my grades accurate?

A teacher at a neighboring school district that I've consulted with previously recently emailed me a question.

"I am looking at my grades for my classes and I am a little worried that my grades for my students are maybe too good. There is no one with a C or less. I obviously don’t want my students to do bad but shouldn’t there be at least one student that isn’t doing good?..."
This email could have just as easily asked...
"...There is no one with a B or better.  I obviously want my students to do well, but shouldn't there be at least one student that is doing well?..."
Here was my response:

  • Be less concerned with the number of A's, B's, C's, etc. students are earning in your class.
  • Be more concerned with ensuring the grades students are earning accurately represent their current level of understanding.
  • Be more concerned that your grading system ensures students have an opportunity to demonstrate their understanding at any given time within the grading period, not just "by the test date."
  • Be more concerned that you've clearly communicated the purpose of your grading system with parents and students.
From assignment-based grading to standards-based grading
It's worth double checking.  Are our grading systems setup to communicate current levels of understanding or do they continue to report point accumulation based on assignments?

What did I forget in my response to this teacher?

Assessment Voicethread

I'm participating in Paul Cancellieri's Assessment digital conversation and wanted to take a minute and explain why I'm spending some of my time this week participating in it with the idea that you might decide to as well.

First, thinking and talking about assessment literally changed my philosophy of education.  One of my favorite education quotes comes from a book by Lorna Earl
"...changing classroom assessment is the beginning of a revolution - a revolution in classroom practices of all kinds...Getting classroom assessment right is not a simplistic, either-or situation. It is a complex mix of challenging personal beliefs, rethinking instruction and learning new ways to assess for different purposes." (Earl, 2003, pp. 15-16)
Talking about assessment led me to re-thinking how I interacted with students as they walked in the door.  Talking about assessment led me to improve the way I communicated with parents.   Talking about assessment led me to a really memorable and fun semester mentoring a student teacher from the local college.

Second, I'm a big fan of asynchronous discussions.  My first graduate program was a hybrid format.  I went to traditional class a few Saturdays per semester, but the rest of it was online.  I loved reading the discussion threads at lunch, thinking about them all day and then coming home to log on and post my responses.  I appreciate time to think before sharing my thoughts, so a Voicethread conversation that allows me to record or type a response anytime of the day presents a enjoyable and unique opportunity to learn for me personally.  

Third, in my my role as a second year district administrator, I'm constantly looking for ways to learn from folks in other systems.  I try to interact regularly via Twitter; attend local and regional conferences; and have been through one graduate program, almost two now.  There's still something special though about spending a few days with some really dedicated educators in an environment focused on a topic we're all passionate about, assessment.  Call this an assessment nerd fest if it makes you feel better - I don't mind and I hope you won't either! 

Finally, I need to add a disclaimer that I am being compensated in a very small way to be a part of the conversation, but I would still be participating for free. Assessment is THAT important in education. I'm looking forward to helping the teachers in my district improve their assessment practices. Any single educator moving forward alone will only be as successful as his/her time and efforts permit.  The mantra we sometimes use is "Together, we're better" and that includes the district guy (me) sharpening his tool chest early and often for the benefit of those who were not able to join in. 

I hope to "see" you online between now and October 8th!

Teachers play an important role in planning professional development

"Think back a few years ago when no one in our school was using standards-based grading.  Now, look at how many teachers are moving in that direction!" - a teacher from our high school.

I'm in my second year as an administrator in a district of approximately 1300 students.  The administrative team consists of me, the superintendent, and three building principals.  On any given day, I wear one of many hats: technology director, curriculum director, mentoring and induction facilitator, special education director, and also the guy who completes many of the state and federal reports.  I'll be honest in saying there are days when I wonder if central office folks can really make a difference. A few experiences I had today, including the conversation leading to the quote above, helped set me back on the path of feeling a part of this thing we call education

I tell myself almost weekly that I don't want to lose sight of what it's like to be a classroom teacher.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoy my current job and its challenges, but there are days (weeks?! months?!) I wish I still was teaching full-time.  When I taught high school math, it was easy to describe what I do on a regular basis to those outside the field of education, "I teach kids geometry and statistics."  Because school is a part of nearly everyone's upbringing, the life of a high school math teacher doesn't seem too mysterious.  When I decided to step away from the classroom, I quickly learned that I needed a "non-education" description of this new job.  I describe my role as a person that "helps teachers become better teachers so that more students can learn at a high level."  Pretty vague, eh?  Let me try to explain. 

One of the biggest reasons I took this job was to see if it really is possible for a school to move beyond "sit and get" professional development that lacks follow-up and a connection to student learning, to something meaningful**.  I realized that no matter how often I volunteered to teach or observe in classrooms, I would likely be seen as someone who has lost touch with what it's like to be a classroom teacher.  The key would be to to enlist the assistance of classroom teachers in planning professional development.  Our district leadership team (DLT) consists of building principals, two or three classroom teachers per building and me.  Here's an outline of the process we've used over the past 14 months or so.  First, we meet a week before school starts for a full (paid!) day together and begin outlining the big picture for the year.  We look at our activities from last year, several staff feedback surveys, and a self-study of our progress related to long-term targets we've set.  During this day, we also plan the first day of all-district professional learning.  Here continues the cycle of plan - execute - reflect. 
  1. Execute the professional learning activities with DLT classroom teachers leading as often as possible.
  2. Ask each staff member to complete an anonymous feedback survey, including a question along the lines of, "What do we need to do next?"
  3. I send out the survey results district-wide so that we all have time to reflect on the feedback.
  4. I use the results from the feedback survey and our outline for the year to create activities for the district leadership team to experience.  I'll call this the "mini PD" for the sake of further discussion.
  5. Before the next professional development day, the DLT meets for a half day and participates in the "mini PD" that I've planned. 
  6. We spend the rest of the afternoon or morning planning the next all-district professional learning activities using an outline I've created ahead of time.  Typically, the "mini PD" is an activity or two that might fit into our next all-district professional development day.  By trying it out with the DLT, it gives them a chance to experience it first hand before deciding if/how we should use it with our entire staff.
  7. The DLT executes the professional learning activities with classroom teachers leading as often as possible. 
    (Repeat feedback, reflection and planning based on that feedback)
Today, the DLT met.  The meeting started off with the usual "mini PD."  It's pretty typical for the team to tweak or even slightly overhaul my learning activities outline during the planning process, but today something extraordinary happened.  The learning activities outline was completely overhauled, proving my plan to be mediocre at best.  Even though it created some deep conversation about current practice, the "mini PD" the teachers experienced was quickly removed from the outline and postponed until a later date.  The plan we came up with is differentiated by building.  The teachers in this team made it clear by saying...
"I like the idea of doing .....but based on our feedback, we need to spend more time on...."
"We can't overwhelm our colleagues with...but we need to provide additional guidance with...."
It's a great group of teachers to work with, because they're not afraid to speak up when our planning does not look "teacher friendly," but what's really impressed me lately is the team's willingness to seek progress rather than procrastination - sometimes at the expense of pushing the limits of themselves and their colleagues.  For example, after sticking to a previously set staff deadline (when I initially suggested we provide more grace), the team shortened yet another deadline.  This team of teachers and principals is stepping out on a limb to avoid Parkinson's law, believing that more time isn't always needed to complete a task. 

The story I've shared here may not be incredibly memorable for those outside our district, but I hope it begins to illustrate the point that teachers play an important role in planning professional development.  Without their input, those of us without classrooms full-time are often left with a mediocre plan at best.  

How are teachers being used, if at all, in your district to plan professional development activities? 

**This year, our anonymous feedback survey data indicates we're trending in the right direction.

State standards & opportunity to learn

With permission from a grad school colleague, I am re-posting her response to a discussion on curriculum influences from a semester ago:
I want to begin by first talking a little about my out of state teaching experience and what was taught there. What was taught there was what was mandated by legislation, Kentucky Core Content. For every grade level there were a set of standards that were supposed to be taught. In addition to the standard there was also key vocabulary, suggested activities, and DOK (depth of knowledge) levels. As a first year teacher I really appreciated this resource. I didn't have to worry about what I was teaching but instead could focus all of my attention on how I was teaching it. This experience helped me grow as an educator and I discovered that what I was teaching wasn't always as important as how I was teaching it. What I was being told to teach was very similar to what gets taught here in Iowa. 
When I moved back to Iowa and began teaching here my focus switched from how I was teaching to what I was teaching, which I found to be a pretty big waste of my time. Since I have been back over half of the in-services I have attended have focused on what we are teaching. We argue, we debate, feelings are hurt, people are mad and nothing ever gets accomplished. I have been involved in curriculum mapping in both districts I have taught in and feel that for the most part it has been a total waste of time. What if instead of fighting about what we were teaching we were working on teaching it in effective ways. WOW, what a concept. If the Iowa Core isn't implemented I will be very disappointed. Tell me what to teach and I will make sure that I teach it to the best of my ability.
Dr. Pace asked what influences what gets taught and I wish I could say, what students need, what benefits them the most, and what they are interested in, but I can't. What gets taught for many classrooms is what is in the textbook, what the teacher has taught for the past 20 years, what is interesting to the teacher, and sometimes what is easy. Oh, and if anybody asks what the standards say. If only we could find where we put them. I don't mean to be cynical but this is an area of great frustration for me. 
For other classrooms this isn't the case. What gets taught often times is what we are currently learning about as a staff through professional development. What teachers feel students need to know, based on assessments. What the standards say should be taught. What resources are available to teachers and students and what various stakeholders feel is important.
In my classroom I try to follow the districts' standards and benchmarks however, in the area of science this can be difficult because these concepts and ideas are being taught in fourth grade and sometimes even third grade. I try very hard to let the students' questions and interests help guide what gets taught. For science, I use an inquiry based approach to teaching and learning. I love it and so do the students. 
As we debate and discuss the merits of our first dose of state standards here in Iowa, I've found myself warming up to the idea of spending less time time locally deciding "what" should be taught and instead refocusing that energy on...making sure everyone is clear on the "what."

I can argue both sides of the "state standards" issue.  Students all have unique interests and futures and they should spend time exploring these while in K-12 schools.  On the flip side, it would be a shame to create an educational lottery in which students in District A are exposed to a more rigorous and relevant curriculum than students in District B.  

I'll be the first to admit that I'm when it comes down to implementation, I'm not much of an "outside the box" thinker.  So, state standards in Iowa - here we come!  It's time to get down to business and the work ahead is ensuring we don't create an educational lottery within my local district or between my district and the one up the road.  All students, regardless of the classroom they're assigned to,  should be exposed to the same essential concepts and ideas.  These concepts and ideas can't come from the textbook, "what we've done in the past" or what "we might find interesting."  As my colleague said, "Tell me what to teach and I will make sure that I teach it to the best of my ability."  I believe that our teachers, like many teachers across the country, are hard workers who want to do the right thing.  It's time here in Iowa for us to spend less time debating what students should be learning and spend more time making sure they all have the same opportunity to learn it.