Category Archives: Educational Leadership

Foreword to Excellence Through Equity by Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Foreword to Excellence Through Equity

by Archbishop Desmond Tutu


Having helped to act as a catalyst and to shepherd one of the world’s few peaceful transitions from a colonial occupation to a democratically elected president, I can say that a movement is born out of the convergence of dire conditions, a powerful idea, and people committed to carrying out that idea. This landmark book, edited by Alan M. Blankstein and Pedro Noguera, may be a similar catalyst to such a movement. Complete with a bold and compelling vision, cases of success throughout the world, and a guide to action for the reader, Excellence Through Equity offers a powerful way forward and new hope for millions of children.

The timing for this book is on target, as America may be reaching a breaking point. Some of the signs—growing economic disparities, segregated housing, police brutality, and inequitable education for children—are well known to me and all South Africans who suffered 4 decades of apartheid. Unlike America, the inequities and brutality endured by our people were systematic and officially state-sanctioned. Yet America’s challenges may still feel similar to the children, families, and communities that endure them. Looking from afar at cities throughout America like Ferguson, Missouri, it would seem so.

When a growing number of a country’s citizenry feel overwhelmed, disenfranchised, angry, or hopeless, the possible roads forward are finite and known. Overall economic decline due to neglect of infrastructure and support for the common good is one; violent struggle for power is another. We in South Africa, however, chose a road less travelled. Probably unique in the history of colonialism, White settlers voluntarily gave up their monopoly of political power. The final transfer of power was remarkably peaceful; it is often described as a “miracle” because many thought that South Africa would erupt into violent civil war.

The challenges in choosing the road to higher moral ground and prosperity for all are many. They include confronting old zero sum game thinking in which someone must lose. Blankstein and Noguera tackle this head on and provide a more compelling reality in evidence in schools throughout the world. It more closely aligns with our own most highly held tradition of Ubuntu: “I am because you are.” This view of a united community was a saving grace in South Africa.

Ubuntu was drawn on by our first popularly elected president, Nelson Mandela, and served as an underpinning of our work in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in which we ourselves were wounded healers of our people. We attempted to repair the gap between the races by getting the ugly truth of the apartheid regime and of the liberation movements out into the open, granting amnesty even to the worst offenders, and then seeking to find ways of reconciling the conflicting parties. We realized that everyone in the room—from the most powerful leader, to the most victimized young person—had much to learn, and we modeled an environment of equity and equality. We made sure when we had these public hearings that even the furniture layout demonstrated this. We didn’t sit on a platform higher than, but we deliberately sat on a level with the victims.

Fortifying this reality of being stronger united than separated similarly, the authors of this book demonstrate in case after case how every student advances when learning in an equitable system. In such an environment, everyone learns and each person counts.

Allowing for this brighter reality in which all of God’s rainbow children succeed within an equitable environment alarms those who fear for the loss of resources for their own child. Blankstein and Noguera rise to the challenge and, along with their coauthors, offer up schools, districts, and even nations that have discovered a more powerful secret: when done well, school communities focused on equity actually better educate wealthy majority students as well as those who are less privileged!

Following one’s moral compass to an enlightened but less travelled road to success takes courage. Even if the mind is captured by a glorious vision that the heart is morally compelled to pursue, the body will need specific direction and courage to make the journey successfully in the face of many obstacles. Equity Through Excellence takes this into consideration, spotlighting how pioneers in this venture have successfully moved forward, and framing all of this in 5 Principles of Courageous Leadership.

In their section on “Achieving Excellence Through Equity for Every Student,” Blankstein and Noguera share an insight that was also critical to our successful transition of power: We didn’t struggle in order just to change the complexion of those who sit in the Union buildings; it was to change the quality of our community and society. We wanted to see a society that was a compassionate society, a caring society, a society where you might not necessarily be madly rich, but you knew that you counted. Excellence Through Equity provides direction for those bent on creating such a society for generations to come. Letting go of a system of winners and losers in favor of what is proposed in this book is a courageous leap forward that we all must take together. Let this bold, practical book be a guide; and may you travel into this new exciting vista, in which every child can succeed, with Godspeed.

God bless you.

Copyright © 2015 by Alan M. Blankstein and Pedro Noguera.

Relational trust in schools among ADULTS is essential to student success.

Yet with teacher evaluation, new assessments, budget cuts and the like, trust can become frayed.

This SERIES—excerpted from the forthcoming third edition of the award-winning Failure Is NOT an Option®: 6 Principles That Advance Student Achievement in Highly Effective Schools; is focused on some specific strategies to build trust in schools.

Relationships are at the core of successful learning communities as well as student success. In its Set for Success report of 2002, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation summarizes, “Stated simply, positive relationships are essential to a child’s ability to grow up healthy and achieve later social, emotional, and academic success”.

Those positive relationships begin with the adults in the school building and district. The personal rapport among teachers, students, and parents influences students’ school attendance and their sustained efforts at difficult school tasks. The history of relations between the principal and the teaching staff determines teachers’ willingness to take on new initiatives, and the relationships among adults in the school greatly influence the extent to which students in that school will succeed academically. In essence, if the adults in the building get along, so will the students.

Building meaningful and productive relationships with people is complex; people are less predictable, and their emotions can be scary. How often are school leaders trained in the many nuances of dealing with an angry parent, a disgruntled staff member, or a crying teacher? Where is the how-to manual for these tasks? Moreover, who has time for these elements when the “real” work of increasing student achievement awaits?

Relationships are the real work of school improvement! Without people and relationships, who will administrators lead and how far will followers follow?

Building relational trust with the staff is a precursor to sustainable success. In our work in thousands of schools and districts, this trust has been built by the leader using various approaches.

The first strategy in this series is:

Listen First

It’s essential to recognize that everyone wants to be heard. The new-leader syndrome, however, often entails changing things quickly to establish authority. Many veteran leaders, on the other hand, may feel they already know what is best and may move forward without building consensus. In both cases, the “slow” part—listening—of going “fast” is cut out of the process and initiatives are short-lived.

The “listen first” strategy has many components:

  1. Show appreciation via understanding the other point of view. “I appreciate that you’ve been asked to do a LOT here…!”
  2. Finding merit in what the person does, thinks, or feels is important in showing appreciation– even when you don’t agree! “I realize that it seems easier to teach students in Like-ability groups, and you need a way to manage a lot of diverse learners. At the same time, we know putting students into tracks will doom many to staying in those tracks. Ai here’s what we need to pilot instead…”
  3. Communicate understanding in words and actions. Saying “I look forward to seeing you when you feel better” could be even more powerful were you to send over some cough drops too!
  4. Show appreciation for yourself as well! “Yes it’s been hard to handle so much change– imagine having to lead it all!…”

How Singapore Students Beat the World in “Problem-solving” and What this Means for America

In the first PISA exams designed to measure problem-solving, Singapore’s 562 score toped 44 countries and economies in an area that Western countries used to claim as their last domain of preeminence. After returning from Singapore to keynote the 2014 summit along with Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves and Louise Stoll for some 1300 delegates from throughout Asia, I have some insights as to how this country of only 5.5 million people has outflanked 44 nations, including the richest one on earth: the USA. Some of the critical factors in Singapore’s success can’t be reproduced in the west; some can; and others can be improved upon.

Culture is King

A school’s culture will eat policies, structures, strategies and assessments for lunch – and that includes Common Core assessments. The culture is the most powerful and enduring aspect of a learning community and the greatest determinant of the success of the students in that community. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, continues an attempt to change practice through competition that creates a few winners and millions of losers (our children). Marc Tucker, President of the National Center for Education and the Economy meanwhile correctly advocate changes in policy and structure – especially pertaining to supporting teachers in ways that stick instead of with sticks (paraphrasing Fullan). Yet these two opposing viewpoints have something in common with most analysis: they overlook the extent to which both the school culture and the larger culture in which it resides is the greatest lever for sustained success.

Tapping the strength of the Singaporean Culture

Imagine arriving late a city of the western nation of your choice, claiming your baggage and awaiting a cab that will take you to your hotel via a route unknown to you. What questions or concerns arise in this scenario? Will my bags arrive? How long will customs take? Will the driver understand me? Will I be taken the “tourist route?”
Now imagine your bags arrive almost as you approach the carousel, you go through customs in a matter of minutes, hop into a taxi driven by a Malaysian man who has undertaken 30 days of intensive cab-driver training following his 2-years in college. He easily maneuvers crime-free -streets of a city with no unemployment and a code of ethics and honesty that will allow you to safely put your GPS away while in the back of that taxi. You are in Singapore!
The driver is a “professional” who knows his way. The country has agreed upon ethics and strict enforcement of them such that neither your safety nor that of your wallet is at risk. And everyone is in concert on the top priorities of this country which include their children, and the education that will enhance not only their livelihoods, but their lives.
What are the cultural ingredients that have enabled Singapore to outpace all other nations in education? Can countries like the USA, with one of the highest per pupil educational expenditures in the world, adopt any of these practices given our differing cultures? What advantages, if any, does the US have vis a’ vis top performing nations, and how could those be maximized?

The ingredients for Success

“We want our young to think independently, to explore with confidence, and to pursue their passions. Education is not just about training for jobs. It is about opening doors for our children, and giving them hope and opportunities. They are our future.”

Mr Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore, Nov 2007 

  1. Integrity of leadership
    As the quote above indicates, leadership in Singapore is committed to its children and its people. There is alignment of purpose and action as well, and corruption is not tolerated. Punishments are swift and severe and their likelihood is mitigated in practical ways like paying top government officials upwards of $1M. By contrast, in America the assumption is that millionaires will leave their jobs to take one with the government that pays a fraction of what they formerly earned without a payout awaiting them on the back end, or worse, while still in office.Likewise, while their overall budget is a fraction of that of many Western nations, Singapore’s top spending priority is education after the military. Educators are well-paid professionals who do not determine the curriculum but do define how they will meet standards, which are clear.
    While moving toward Common Core Standards in America after more than a century of uncommon standards, we still have 23 states using Smarter Balanced Assessment, 14 using PARCC, and 14 “other.” Neither our national leaders (where congress rates lower in opinion polls than does the Russian Politburo) nor our state leaders (where several are under investigation, and one just narrowly avoided impeachment) have the public confidence necessary to bring about cohesive action on behalf of our children.
  2. Integrity of Implementation
    While Singapore has different types of schools, and conceivably a different quality of pedagogy, the attempt is to bring about consistency across curriculum, standards, instruction, and success for students in all schools. Not so in America. The April 23 issue of Education Week sums it up: “Like so much else in the world of teacher preparation, progress at readying new teachers for vastly different (Common Core) K-12 content expectations can probably best be described by one objective: inconsistent.”
    This inconsistency is found in all phases of our “system.” From teacher preparation in which “academic freedom” means learning based on individual professors’ predilections; to technology selection and professional development which is influenced less by student needs than by corporations’ marketing plans; to a patchwork of public, private and charter schools — each school community is more or less on its own to make myriad decisions and spending choices of $600B collectively.
  3. Practical Tradeoffs Favor the Common Good V. “Winner Take All”
    At the core of Singapore’s success is their hard-headed willingness to sacrifice some of their individual excesses in favor of their vision of collective success. The cab driver above shared that although he is not making as much money as he would like, and has little prospect at this point in changing that, he would not want to live anywhere else. Why? “It’s safe here, and my children are getting a great education.” People at the bottom of the economic latter in America could not say this. They don’t have healthcare, safety, or access to great education for their children. Singapore made a collective decision to turn away from these vast disparities they faced shortly after they were founded 50 years ago. Those at the top committed to the common good, and have since reaped the rewards. They don’t live in gated communities for protection, because like this cab driver, no one is hungry or desperate.

A Ray of HOPE for America

It’s highly unlikely that we will wake up any day soon and find cohesive leadership at the national level, cohesive implementation of our nation’s top education priorities, or a new understanding of how everyone winning (or at least having a viable stake in the game) is actually possible and far more productive and sustainable that the zero sum game we now hold so tightly (a topic my colleague Pedro Noguera and I address in a forthcoming Corwin book.). Future blog posts, however, will explore in greater depth these promising and proven strategies that we can pursue at local and regional levels. These are cutting-edge ways we can make our often destructive desire for rugged individualism and “choice” (even when it’s between many bad options) work in our favor:

  • At a system level, we can begin to tap our collective creativity in ways akin to open-source programming. I-Zone in NYC, for example, is bringing brilliant entrepreneurs into the school system to work side-by-side with educators, parents and students to collectively create tech solutions to problems defined by educators. Everyone co-creates and owns the final product, wants to implement it, and does so at a reduced cost.
  • At the regional and district level, we can tap the “Answer in the Room,” to steal the title from my last book, via a process for networking schools in a manner that yields the scaling, or diffusion, of effective strategies that are already successfully used somewhere within the network.
  • At the school and classroom levels, we can fully engage all learners and attain excellence through “equity” – assuring each student gets what s/he needs to succeed. For some students, this means putting the Arts into STEM ( ie STEAM); for others it’s project based learning. These strategies for unleashing student motivation, talent and joy will be fleshed out in future blogs.

There is hope; even in the most dire of circumstances. Mine is that we don’t have to get to that point. Our children need and deserve better, and it is up to us to give them that. Singapore provides some insights into how we can behave on their behalf. Now it’s up to us to incorporate those lessons into our own culture and context.