Archive for the 'Policy issues' Category

Why it’s essential for school board members to be intentional learners

Dennis Sparks

First among many superb ideas to be found in A School Board Guide to Leading Successful Schools: Focusing on Learning by Stephanie Hirsh and Anne Foster is this one:

“Exemplary school boards are made up of members who come to the board for the right reason–to provide quality public schools for the children of their school system.… They are committed to serving and learning, and their example can become a model for the entire school system and community.…

“Each person on the school board brings a unique set of experiences and knowledge that can be valuable to the group as a whole. But regardless of the knowledge and viewpoint that each member brings, the entire board is on a continuous learning curve. Board members can grow together in their knowledge of public school issues, school system business, and their role as board members. How they go about learning and continually upgrading their knowledge will determine to a large degree how successfully they will work together and lead the school system. How deeply they are willing to learn about important issues will determine the quality of their decision making, their attempts to reach consensus, and their ability to support the superintendent and staff. (bold mine)

In my experience, a system of learning schools requires a school board and superintendent who are intentional and public learners.

There are no exceptions to this requirement if the goal is high-quality teaching for all students in all classrooms in all schools.

Do you agree?

If so, I encourage you to read and pass on Hirsh and Foster’s book to a school board member who seeks to better understand the importance of Board learning and teamwork. Better yet, if you are in a position to do so, provide copies for the entire Board and ask members to devote as many sessions as possible to its study.


When educators neglect “politics,” they do so at their own peril


Each week this summer I’m introducing a blog theme that connects popular and important posts from recent years. Each theme offers a number of perspectives on a perennial challenge of school leadership.

This week focuses on policy issues that face public education and, therefore, school leadership.

Successful school leadership requires simultaneously paying attention to the micro—the urgent and immediate—and the macro—the policy and legislative environment that often profoundly influences their day-to-day work and the well being of students.

Because the first category is typically more pressing and because leaders by talent and inclination find more satisfaction in the daily responsibilities of teaching and learning, it is easy to neglect  broader political context of public education.

I encourage you to scroll through articles in this thread to find those that match your interests.

In addition, I encourage you to take a closer look at these essays:

“What the best and wisest parent wants…”

“The storyline used by those who seek to destroy public education”

“A strong rationale for public education”


Why “business capital” methods will destroy public education

IMG_1365In the June 2013 issue of the JSD Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan contrast “business capital” and “professional capital” approaches to public education (“The power of professional capital”) .

“Right now, there are two visions for capital in how it can be used to improve teaching in the U. S. and elsewhere,” they write. “One is a business capital approach. In this view, the purpose of public education is increasingly to yield a short-term profit with her returns for its investors. The purpose of public education is to be a market for technology, for testing products, for charter schools and companies and chains and their look-alliance in Sweden in England and other parts of the world…

“The opposite stance toward teaching is a professional capital approach. In this approach, teaching is hard. It’s technically difficult, for example, knowing the signs of Asperger’s, differentiating instruction, learning all the skills to deal with difficult adults. It requires technical knowledge, high levels of education, strong practice within schools, and continuous improvement overtime that is undertaken collaboratively, and the calls for the development of wireless judgment.

As seems obvious, the approach used will have a profound effect on teaching and learning and on the very existence of public education as we have known it.

Business Capital Approach

• An unrelenting emphasis on short-term gains in the form of standardized, high-stakes tests at the expense of the broader, long-term purposes of public education such as preparation for citizenship and the cultivation of interests and talents not included on these tests.

• The overarching purpose of maximizing profits requires minimizing costs—that means teachers, particularly those with experience. That requires…

• Denigrating the value of teaching as a career-long profession and demonizing teacher unions.

Professional Capital Approach

• A wide variety of assessment methods are used to promote learning and to measure student progress related to a broad range of valued outcomes.

• Teaching is viewed as career-long profession in which expertise is continuously developed. That requires…

• Substantial investments in the preparation and continuous development of teachers’ and administrators’ knowledge, skills, and professional judgment, including their ability to participate effectively on high-functioning teams.

The business capital approach—which is being aggressively pursued on many fronts—is likely to destroy public education as we have known it, except perhaps in the most affluent communities where engaged and influential parents will not tolerate a limited standardized-test-driven education for their children.

In contrast, the professional capital approach is essential to the continuous improvement of teaching and learning for the benefit of all students.

From your experience, what are the implications of these two perspectives for teaching and learning and for the future of public education?

Why trying to improve student learning while decreasing physical activity is like shooting yourself in the foot before running a marathon


Physical and emotional energy are arguably a school community’s most important resource. Skillful teachers and administrators have always known how to heighten, moderate, and refocus that energy as situations demand.

However, outside forces can sometimes have a profound effect on energy in classrooms and schools. Federal, state, and local policies have unwittingly conspired to decrease physical education requirements and even eliminated recess in a misguided effort to improve test scores.

Students who are not able to discharge their energy in appropriate ways are far more likely to create management problems. So it’s not surprising that at the same time that physical activity has been declining in schools students diagnosed with attention-related disorders and discipline referrals to administrators have dramatically increased.

In addition, because students’ health correlates closely with their ability to learn, eliminating physical activity to improve test scores is self defeating. It is also a source of the youth obesity and other health-related problems that plague our country.

Therefore, I was pleased to see a new report from the Institute of Medicine that asks the U.S. Department of Education designate physical education be a core subject, as reported by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post.

About the report, Strauss writes: “While definitive data are not available, it says, the best estimate is that only about half of young people in the United States meet the current guideline of at least 60 minutes of vigorous or moderate-intensity physical activity daily.”

Strauss adds: “The consequences of inactivity are very real, the report says. ‘A lack of activity increases the risk of heart disease, colon and breast cancer, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, osteoporosis, anxiety and depression, and other diseases. Recent studies have found that in terms of mortality, the global population health burden of physical inactivity approaches that of cigarette smoking and obesity. Indeed, the prevalence of physical inactivity, along with this substantial associated disease risk, has been described as a pandemic.’”

Given the strong link between physical health and learning, it is difficult to fault this recommendation, although I know its implementation will be challenging given the narrowed, standardized-test driven focus of many schools.

What do you think… Is this recommendation just one more responsibility unfairly added to an already overflowing curriculum or is an hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity essential to students’ learning and health?


Improved teacher evaluation may be necessary, but it’s far from sufficient


For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. – H. L. Mencken

The problems of teaching, learning, and school leadership are complex. Perhaps that is why policymakers often respond with solutions that are “clear, simple, and wrong.” Or at least wrong in part.

Recent efforts to strengthen teacher evaluation provide an example.

There’s no question that improved teacher (and principal) evaluation is desirable. Evaluation methods used in most places in recent years have done little to improve teaching, support struggling teachers, and identify and remove educators who are incompetent.

But the effects of improved processes of teacher evaluation will be minimal unless they are well integrated with:

Well-trained classroom observers, evaluators, and peer assistance teams.

Peer evaluation and mentoring of teachers in their first few years of employment to ensure that only competent teachers are admitted into the profession and that they begin their teaching careers on a solid footing.

Sustained, high-quality professional learning with coaching targeted at high-priority school and school system student learning goals.

Participation by all teachers on instructional teams that have as their primary purpose the continuous improvement of teaching and learning for all students.

School cultures that promote innovation and experimentation and that surround all members of the school community with encouraging and helpful relationships.

Skillful principals and teachers leaders supported by skillful system administrators.

Effective leadership at both the school and district levels will determine to what extent these elements are integrated into a coherent, high-quality program of career-long development that serves students, the school community, and the teaching profession.

What the best and wisest parent wants…

Dennis Sparks

What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must be what the community wants for all its children. – John Dewey

The quality of a child’s education ought not be determined by his or her ZIP Code. Nor by the luck of the draw regarding which teacher he or she has been given in a given year.

That’s why it is essential that:

• schools be designed so that all students and all staff members are successful,

all teachers experience various types of informal and formal professional learning each day as part of their work,

all teachers are part of high-functioning teams that continuously improve teaching and learning for the benefit of all students,

every member of the school community feels engaged and supported in his or her unique role,

• the success of reform efforts be judged based on whether they have a positive effect on all students, not just those who are easiest to educate or have the most engaged parents (school privatization programs that leave public schools with fewer resources to educate this nation’s most-challenged students do not meet that criterion).

Taken together, these assertions are the rationale for a strong, comprehensive, and accountable system of public education sustained by dedicated and skillful career educators.

What did I miss?


The two worlds of school leadership

Dennis Sparks

William Glasser’s  book Reality Therapy was an invaluable resource to me in the early 1970s as I sought to help “disaffected” youth be more successful and responsible in life and school. (I had helped found and co-directed a public alternative high school.)

Glasser taught me what went on within and between people mattered and that people of all ages could learn how to be more effective (in this case, both me and my students).

Another book from the 1970s, Kenneth Wooden’s Weeping in the Playtime of Others described the pernicious effects of the juvenile justice system on young people who were incarcerated for status offenses – that is offenses for which adults would not be deprived of their freedom, like running away from home.

Wooden revealed to me the powerful and often invisible influence of the broader system on individuals.

Because of Glasser my work over many years has been focused on creating learning environments for young people and adults that enable success and on developing face-to-face relationships in classrooms and schools that empower both young people and adults.

Because of Wooden I am interested in how the systems that surround schools affect learning and the quality of life within them.

Because my goal is to help school leaders become more skillful in creating school communities that continuously improve teaching, learning, and relationships for the benefit of all students, I want:

To support principals and teachers in doing their very best for the students who are now in our schools.

To interrupt in any way I can the destructive downward spiral of public education by those who will benefit from its demise.

As a result, some of these essays provide practical ideas and processes through which teaching, learning, and relationships can be strengthened. (My most popular post of this type was one on teamwork.)

Others essays are intended to reveal the powerful forces external to schools that seek to undermine public education and to inspire school leaders to act individually and collectively to counter these forces. (The most popular post here was one on the narrative used to destroy public education.)

Taken together Glasser and Wooden taught me that creating great schools for students and teachers requires leadership that addresses both the schoolhouse and the statehouse, a lesson that’s as relevant four decades later as it was in the 1970s.

First, do no harm

Dennis SparksAll but the most extreme ideologues would have to agree that Muskegon Heights, Michigan’s first fully-privatized school system, is doing harm to students in the name of helping them.

When I read this Michigan Radio report on the current state of affairs in Muskegon Heights I was reminded of the Vietnam-era strategy of destroying a village to save it.

The report begins:

“At least one in four teachers at the new Muskegon Heights school district have already quit the charter school this year. That’s after an emergency manager laid off all the former public school teachers in Muskegon Heights because he didn’t have enough money to open school in the fall. That means there have been a lot of new, adult faces in the district.

“Students say the high teacher turnover has affected them and top school administrators say it has held back academic achievement this school year.”

A minimal standard for reform efforts is that they do no harm to students. Non-maleficence, as they call it in the medical profession.

Sadly, that is clearly not the case in Muskegon Heights.

The reasonable part of me wants to say, “But on the other hand…” I want to believe that these are well-intentioned people, to acknowledge that this is a complex undertaking and that success will take time, perhaps even years, if it is to occur at all.

But there can be no “other hand” when it comes to the well-being of children who pass through our classrooms only once. They deserve far better than what the public school privatizers are giving them through Mosaica Education Incorporated.

Mosaica, first do no harm.


A strong rationale for public education

Dennis Sparks

As a firm believer in the value of a strong system of public education staffed by well-prepared and supported career teachers, I think it is essential that school leaders be able to clearly articulate a rationale for public education, particularly during a time when it is under serious threat from powerful and well-financed interests.

Diane Ravitch has done a superb job of describing why public education is important and the threat posed to it by privatization. She writes:

“There are many reasons to object to privatization.

“One is that there is no evidence that privately managed firms that operate public services provide more efficient or less costly service. Another is that privately managed firms, when operating for profit, extract public dollars for investors that taxpayers intended for children, for educational programs that directly benefit children, for reduced class sizes, —and not to enrich shareholders. Privately managed nonprofits often pay salaries that would be unacceptable in the public sector. Privately managed firms tend to exclude the costliest clients to minimize their own costs, thus leaving the hardest cases for the less well funded public sector agency. And last, to destroy public education, which is so inextricably linked to our notions of democracy and citizenship would be an assault on the commonweal. Let us not forget that public education has been the instrument of the great social movements for more than the past half century–desegregation, gender equality, disability rights, and the assimilation of immigrants. Once it is gone, it is gone, and that would be a crime against ourselves.”

Advertising campaigns touting for-profit schools?

Dennis Sparks

A New York Times article reports that energy drink producers are making unwarranted claims about their expensive drinks.

“The drinks are now under scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration after reports of deaths and serious injuries that may be linked to their high caffeine levels,” the article notes. “But however that review ends, one thing is clear, interviews with researchers and a review of scientific studies show: the energy drink industry is based on a brew of ingredients that, apart from caffeine, have little, if any benefit for consumers.

“’If you had a cup of coffee you are going to affect metabolism in the same way,’ said Dr. Robert W. Pettitt, an associate professor at Minnesota State University in Mankato, who has studied the drinks.

“Energy drink companies have promoted their products not as caffeine-fueled concoctions but as specially engineered blends that provide something more.”

Articles like this one make me wonder about the kinds of marketing claims that are or will be made by for-profit charter and online schools.

Given the propensity of marketers to use fear and sex to motivate consumers, not to mention the exaggerated claims described in this article, it’s not hard to imagine the advertising campaigns that are or will be used to persuade parents that such schools are in the best interest of their children.

Perhaps such distorted and inaccurate appeals already exist. If readers know of such campaigns, please share them here for others to see.


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