The DeHavilland Blog

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Low-tech focus in school communications

An interesting post by Paul Baker at EducationPR has implications for school/community relations. In a recent post titled "Internet skills rank low in NSPRA survey," Paul notes that both superintendents and school communicators place computer/internet skills alarmingly low on the list of desired attributes for school communicators. From his post:

But consider: "Excellent computer skills including internet capabilities" appeared as tied for #14 on the superintendents' rankings, but because of a number of ties, its actual place position was #22 out of 31. Computer and internet skills ranked even lower on the practitioners' list, appearing as #26, but again, because of a number of ties, its actual place on the list was #30 out of 31 attributes

I don't think this bodes very well for school communications in the near future, especially in an environment of funding cuts, increased media scrutiny, pressures from NCLB, and international competition.

A simple rule in communications is that you need to reach your audience where they are, not where you'd like them to be. If schools want to communicate effectively with stakeholders, they need to include online communications as a core element of their strategy, and have the skills needed to take advantage of this powerful channel.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Setting the wrong standards

There’s been a great deal of talk lately about a move to a national set of academic standards. The reasoning is sound in some ways (efficiency), not so sound in others (resistance to top-down initiatives). But the debate has uniformly skipped over the most important question: is our current approach to standards taking us where we want to go?

My answer is no – standards, as we have framed them, are not accomplishing our objectives for public education, and simply moving them from state to national in scope will do nothing to change our schools.

To explain, let’s start with a little history. Academic standards have been with us for less than 20 years: the first President Bush initially floated the idea at a 1989 education summit with the 50 state governors, and then publicly introduced the idea in his 1990 State of the Union address. The idea caught fire, and we soon saw voluntary national standards introduced by various professional associations, and soon thereafter saw mandated standards (often just versions of the voluntary national standards) introduced at the state level.

The way in which standards were developed is critical. Think about it: for every subject taught in school, a professional group pulled its brightest minds together and built an exhaustive list of everything a student would need to know in order to master that subject. The economics folks built a list of everything one should know about economics to be considered educated in the subject; the health people did the same; and so did every other group and subgroup involved in subjects currently taught in school.

This approach presents two problems. First, the end result of this process is a set of standards, as many others have said, that are “a mile wide and an inch deep,” with textbooks and a classroom experience to match. These standards were simply a list of all the things that one who mastered this subject, regardless of the purpose or value of mastery, would be expected to know.

What’s more, no one ever worked through the critical question that must precede such an exercise: what is the purpose of public education? If we want kids to be “prepared” upon graduating, what does that mean? Prepared for what? And if we know what we want to prepare them for, THEN what subject areas, and areas within subjects, are important for them to learn?

In essence, we didn’t determine what a child should know – we instead determined what a child could know, thereby avoiding some very difficult questions, but also doing nothing to increase the relevance of formal education.

I was first exposed to the implications of this approach while attending a
conference in 2005. Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, pointed out during one session that many sets of state standards do not result in a child being prepared for college. In other words, if assessments align to state standards, and a child passes every assessment, that child will still not be college-ready.

Let that sink in for a minute. And then think about this: if we’re not preparing kids for college, are we preparing them for life? Remember that only 18% of 9th graders go on to earn a college degree. For them, and for the other 82% who don’t earn such a degree – are we preparing them for life outside the school walls?

How many people would agree that financial literacy is critical – yet how hard is it to incorporate into public schooling? Sure, we have standards for financial literacy – everything that could possibly be taught in schools has a set of standards – but how has that helped us increase the rate at which kids are exposed to this vital subject?

If our standards fail to reflect our priorities – if they fail to lay out the things that we know we want kids take away from schools – we cannot blame those in public education. We asked for standards, and absent any other input, they looked at what they were doing and codified it for us.

Rather, it is a failing of the stakeholders of public education. We knew the question we wanted to answer – how, specifically, do we define a good education? – but rather than answer it ourselves, as is our proper role, we punted. We left it to the schools to deal with, and they didn’t (nor should they; nor could they). And the question remains unanswered.

Without answering that question – without determining the end goal of public education – standards do us no good. They simply tell us what is possible to be learned, not what is desirable or needed. And it matters not one bit whether the list of things that can be learned is housed at the state or national level.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The lessons of business - in government

Great editorial piece by Andy Grove, retired chairman of Intel, in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. In an essay titled "Thinking Strategically" (must be an online subscriber), he talks about how the lessons of business could be applied to government operations. He starts:

As a connoisseur of strategy -- student, practitioner (in business) and teacher -- I have long been intrigued with the relationship between strategic principles applied to nations and strategies pursued by businesses. Strategy had its origin in military use, but over time it migrated into the business setting. The linkage is still there: Most contemporary business students, for example, will have read Sun Tzu's "Art of War" in their Business Strategy course. But it is a different relationship that preoccupies me.

Just as medical research tests biological processes in large populations of fruit flies or rodents before human application, I am intrigued by the prospect of applying -- to nations -- the strategic practices that have been formulated and evaluated in the "laboratory" of the world's businesses. As in medical applications, we must be careful in extrapolating from one to the other. Nevertheless, I believe there are benefits to such comparative analysis.

Well worth reading the whole thing.

One thing that concerns me, however - in this entire article, which focused primarily on energy independence, he mentions several other applications, such as medicine and global competition, but does not mention education even once. For someone who pioneered business engagement in education while at Intel (at one point investing $100 million per year in these ventures) and has been a prominent voice in the field, I'm hoping he hasn't moved on to other things...

Taking it to the streets

There’s a really interesting video making the rounds – take a look below:

This was produced by Washington Parents and Educators for Mathematically Correct Curriculum, a group dedicated to removing some sub-par math curricula from schools in that state. It’s a groundbreaking development in stakeholder/education relations for a number of reasons:

  • It’s an excellent use of the medium. There have been any number of articles, petitions, white papers and the like written on math instruction – but until this video appeared, nothing produced was able to make the issue so accessible to parents at large. This warm presentation, offering step-by-step walkthroughs of concrete examples, could only have been done via video.
  • It goes around traditional roadblocks. This group is speaking directly to other education consumers rather than trying to work within the public infrastructure of school board meetings and media pitches. They’re not trying to force change with a small group of concerned people: they’re building a movement, and as their numbers swell they’ll be much more formidable once they do hit the traditional channels.
  • It’s viral. As of today, this video has had nearly 40,000 views on YouTube, and I expect they’ll get much more as people spread the word. (I’ve had three different people forward it to me and seen it on several blogs and listservs already.) This exposure has cost the group nothing, and has significantly raised their profile and awareness of their issue.
  • It leads you to action. The video is only a starting point; it’s not intended to answer all you questions, just to make you want to learn more and to get involved. I’d love to know the impact on their site traffic; I expect it’s significant.
  • It’s cost-effective. What would it cost to produce a video like this? It could be done for nothing with the right volunteers (or next to nothing, if you needed a video pro rather than a parent with a good camcorder). Which means that, unlike printing newsletters or buying advertising, there’s no restrictions and no limits (except volunteer time) to creating effective communication tools to reach a desired audience.

A fascinating development for stakeholders who want to build a movement and drive change. Look for a lot more of this kind of communication to come.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Business principles in practice

In a post titled "Up from Compton," Joanne Jacobs points to a good example of a school using the principles of successful organizations to markedly increase student achievement - in this case, enabling a high-poverty school to move from the bottom 10% to the top 30% of schools in California within six years. Quoting from an LA Times article, she highlights 10 elements of their strategy. These include:

  1. Begin with classroom discipline.
  2. Hire carefully.
  3. Train teachers on site.
  4. Test weekly on state standards.
  5. Do grade-level planning and troubleshooting.
  6. Motivate students.
  7. Inculcate goals and dreams.
  8. Develop parental support.
  9. Seek out new ideas.
  10. Tweak and maintain.

(To see the text supporting each point, go to either Joanne' s post or the LA Times article.)

These points all conform to accepted principles of effective organizations, including:

  • Build a conducive work environment (Point 1 from the list). If you create an environment in which people are constantly distracted, they won't accomplish much. By clamping down on discipline issues, the school allows learning to occur.
  • Have a clear sense of your objectives, and invest accordingly (Points 2 and 3). The school's primary objective - raising test scores - determines how it invests and who it hires. The article points out the teachers are carefully screened against the school's established approach and desired outcomes, and only hires teachers who are willing and able to show that they understand how teaching affects achievement and can follow through. Once hired, the school invests in continuous coaching to make sure teachers follow proven processes.
  • Use data to guide your efforts (Points 4, 5, and 10). The only way to know whether you're progressing against a specific goal is to measure your progress and use that data to correct your course. A salesman with a goal of $50,000/month in sales, for example, knows his metrics - number of cold calls needed to reach a viable prospect, number of prospects he can visit per day, close rate, and average order size. By monitoring his numbers, he (or his manager) can determine whether he's on track to hit his sales goal. Learning involves the same "building blocks" approach, and gathering regular data on student comprehension allows the teacher to correct course in order to stay on track. The key in both cases is to capture the right data, consistently, and in a timely fashion so one can take action as needed.
  • Motivate (Points 6, 7, and 8). Motivation is a fundamental tenet of business: employees have to be motivated to perform at their best, and customers must be motivated to purchase your product or service. This school motivates students with praise and encouragement and by regularly highlighting the relevance of a good education can make possible. (Notice that they're not pandering, trying to make the classes "fun" - they're not hiding the hard work involved, but rather telling students that they can do it and that it's worth the effort.) In addition to those "carrots", they also involve parents to provide additional motivation (both of the carrot and stick variety, I'm sure) on the home front.
  • Identify and adopt best practices (Point 9). No one has a lock on good ideas or effective practices; rather than conceive of and test every possible improvement, effective organizations expend significant effort in uncovering what other similar organizations are doing that they can adopt. They invest in publications, conferences, seminars, trade associations, competitive intelligence gathering, and even competitive hiring in order to keep the flow of proven ideas coming in. Schools can do the same in order to set up a cycle of continuous improvement.

To those who say that business principles don't apply to education, I would point you to schools like Bunche Elementary.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Elevating performance in a flat world

There's an excellent article found within Education Week's latest annual Quality Counts report ("From Cradle to Career") from Andreas Schleider, head of the indicators and analysis division at OECD. Titled "Elevating Performance in a 'Flat World'," Mr. Schleider discusses US performance in international comparisons, takes on some misguided popular thinking among both apologists and reformers, and points to some lessons we can learn from other countries. A very important article.

Monday, January 08, 2007 Ken Lay?

Accountability is a core element of any kind of meaningful education reform. But when the issue is raised, particularly from people in the business community, those opposed to such reforms often question both the reality of accountability in the business world and the morals of those suggesting it. “Do you want us to be accountable like Ken Lay was accountable?” is a question that I’ve heard more than once in this debate.

This argument is flawed on many levels.

Looking through the criminal lens
Let’s start with the insinuation that businesspeople are crooked and unethical as a rule, and therefore that their practices should not be emulated. Painting businesspeople in this way is a common tactic in education reform: if you don’t want to listen to someone, you question their credibility, morality, and authority, then ask why you would possibly want to emulate someone held in such poor regard.

At any rate, it’s a spurious argument – crooks can be found in every walk of life, and using the criminal exceptions to paint an entire group with such a stroke is simply disingenuous. How many examples of criminal behavior can we find in education, from union leaders who embezzle to teachers having sex with students to teachers and administrators who consistently cheat on accountability efforts?

Is that the lens through which we should judge all of public education? Or should we believe that these are malignant exceptions to an otherwise honorable profession? Whichever you choose for public education, you must therefore choose to view business in the same way.

You’re not Ken Lay
Let’s next look at the comparison: a classroom teacher to Ken Lay. Does this seem like a fair and equal comparison?

In reality, we need to compare apples to apples. We’re not comparing classroom teachers to Ken Lay; we’re comparing them to Bob from sales, or Carl from production. The typical worker in the business world is completely accountable, and despite the fact that they rarely help in determining the goals they’ll be measured against, and the fact that they’re unprotected from forces outside of their control, they are held accountable as a condition of their employment.

Bob from sales, for example, is given his sales quota – “you have to sell $50,000 a month of this product” – and he is judged according to whether he meets that goal. It is the reason he was hired, and if he doesn’t meet it he’ll face consequences regardless of what outside factors – market demand, competitive pressures, etc. – work against him.

That’s the kind of accountability we’re talking about: while we do holder leaders accountable for ultimate results, the accountability germane to this discussion relates to the day-to-day outcomes of the work of millions of professionals across the education system, with specific objectives broken out from larger systemic goals.

The alternative?
Let’s also look at the consequences of the counter-argument. Ken Lay, as a criminal, was ultimately caught because there was an accountability system in place. One can argue that it could have been better or stronger – but it was there, and ultimately he and his cohorts couldn’t outrun it.

What if we followed the logic path of the counterargument? Would Ken Lay have ever been found out or brought to justice in the absence of an accountability system?

And perhaps more importantly, borrowing from the last section, would Bob from sales be more productive if given a specific quota (with consequences), or if we just told him to give it his best shot and not to worry about his results?

OPM: Why we’re accountable
Next, let’s talk about the reason for both system-wide and personal accountability. The root reason is OPM: Other People’s Money. When you’re working with other people’s money, you are expected to be accountable.

Salaried and hourly workers are held accountable for their results because they’re being paid with OPM. It’s part of an explicit value proposition: we agree that you were hired to do X, and if you do X, you’ll get Y.

The same thing goes at the system level with publicly held corporations, where external shareholders (ie, owners) hold companies accountable for their performance. They’ve invested in these companies – in other words, the companies are using their money – and they are therefore entitled to answers and to results.

And of course, the same thing is true of public education. The system is working with OPM – specifically, our tax dollars – and therefore has an obligation to let its owners – the public – know what kind of return they’re getting on their investment. Are kids learning to read and do math? Are they graduating? We, the people, are owed these answers, because you’re playing with our money.

I heard someone at a conference highlight the fact that we’re just now starting to shift the discussion in education from inputs (degrees, years spent teaching, certifications, etc.) to outputs (whether children are learning anything). It’s a tremendous shift in thinking – but that does not allow one to make misleading or slanderous comparisons to justify their resistance to change.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

My resolution

I’ve made my resolution this year, and it’s a big one: before the end of this year, I plan on launching a newsletter providing original reporting on business/education partnerships.

Despite the fact that there are tens of thousands of business/education partnerships in this country, and that the business community contributes more than $2.5 billion to K-12 education each year, people interested in building effective partnerships have nowhere to turn when looking for successful campaign models or best practices. The Business/Education Partnership Forum, a pro bono effort, is an initial attempt to fill that void; however, given its limited resources, the Forum can currently serve only as a clearinghouse of information. What’s needed is original research and reporting – and it will take financial support to make that possible.

If you agree on the need for a new resource offering case histories, best practices, interviews with thought leaders, and other information of interest to school and business partnership professionals, and if you’re in a position to support our efforts and reap the rewards that come with that support (or know someone who is), please contact me at; I’d welcome the opportunity to tell you more and see whether we can work together to make this resource into a reality. I have the experience and the relationships needed to make this happen; the only piece missing is initial support for the launch phase.

And if you’re not in a position to support our launch, keep an eye out: this newsletter will be launched prior to the end of 2007 one way or another, and I fully expect that it will make a significant contribution to the field.

Happy New Year to you all!

Community engagement in education

Came across two interesting articles on community engagement that I wanted to share.

The first is a commentary in the The Providence Journal. Titled "Tough choices; system can't be fixed, needs to change," it begins:

The trouble with the long-standing tradition of “local control” in American public schools is that the control is not nearly local enough.

What “local control” actually means is that the decision-making powers of a district’s schools are shared by four bodies, none of which deal directly with students. The four are: the municipality, the school committee, the district’s central office and the labor unions.

In the best of all possible worlds, all four of those entities have their eyes unswervingly trained on the kids’ well-being and academic achievement.

In reality, however, they all tend to respond first to the demands, concerns and egos of grownups. Politicians, elected officials, bureaucrats and unions all need to make themselves indispensable to their constituents just to stay in the game. They jockey for control of resources and power. You can listen to a lot of heated debate among these groups without once hearing any mention of the kids.

As a system for supporting schools, this is useless.

The next, from The Times Online (UK), is titled "Parents' direct access to teachers by text message is 'key to success'." From the article:

“It’s revolutionising the way that teachers can communicate with parents,” Mr Johnson told The Times. “In the old days, parents would only know what was going on when they got the end-of-term report or went to the open day.”

He said that a greater involvement of parents in the education of their children should have a dramatic impact on standards. “Parental involvement in education trumps every other factor in terms of whether a child is going to do well,” he said. “It is more important than ethnicity, more important than social background.”

Many parents, particularly from poorer backgrounds, do not get in touch with schools because they are intimidated by the educational establishment. “Parents are sometimes loath to trouble a school unless they feel welcome, so a strategy that encourages people to express their concerns is really sensible,” Mr Johnson said.

“When you talk about the most difficult to reach, it’s the parents who don’t feel particularly empowered, are not as pushy as they might be because they are inhibited or lack confidence. This can help to break down those barriers.”

While not directly related, both articles do emphasize the importance of parents and other community members in the education process, something I intend to write more about in 2007.