Tag Archives: Education Policy

AASA on Courageous and Uplifting Leadership – Part One

(the following is an excerpt from a forthcoming issue of The School Administrator.  See AASA.org)

It was Monday morning and the middle school had flooded over the weekend. Told it would take two weeks to reopen, the superintendent quickly moved this crisis to the top of his growing list that already included keeping lights on, making payroll, building teachers’ capacity to deliver engaging and rigorous instruction, and meeting state requirements for school improvement in a school district that ranked last in the state.

Yet Marcus Newsome, the new superintendent of the Petersburg, Va., City Public Schools, was smiling this morning during the city partnership meeting that convened top leaders from the state, city and school district. Toward the end of the meeting, Newsome shared, “I’m happy to report that the predicted two-week closing of our middle school didn’t happen. It opened on time this Monday morning! I’d shared with everyone at the school  that we needed ‘all hands on deck,’ and they made it happen.” Newsome publicly acknowledged the school’s janitor and other staff members who had taken the lead in ensuring the school opened on time. He also sent each a personal thank-you.

In the past, Petersburg staff would have responded differently to a crisis. This time there was a significant change. It began with a courageous leader — a leader who runs toward, not away from challenges.

A Time for Courage

Throughout history, leaders as diverse as Aristotle, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr. have pointed to courage — a word derived from the French root word “le Coeur” or “heart” — as the most important of all virtues. This brand of leadership is not based on self-promotion or ego, but on sacrificing for the greater good, which in public education includes promoting inclusiveness, and equity for all children.

Effective leaders use the five principles of courageous leadership to “face the facts and their fears” and address challenges head-on. When these principles guide the work, the efforts build trust and  are more likely sustainable district wide.

No. 1: Get to Your Core.

Friedrich Nietzche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” With school board politics, resistance to meeting diverse students’ needs, and punitive financial and accountability measures serving as distractors from educating our children, we must be rooted in a personal connection to why we are advocating for children each day. The more personal the connection, the more steadfast will be our effort.

Every successful superintendent has a way to stay connected to this core. Aaron Spence, superintendent of the 67,000-student Virginia Beach City School system, reminds himself daily of his personal connection to helping all children and make sure they get the best education possible. He watches prospective principals walk through the building to see if they talk with students and teachers. Did they notice what was happening in the school? Did they connect directly with the students? He makes expectations clear, like the importance of knowing the names of the children who are struggling.

Amy Sichel, superintendent of the 8,000-student Abington School District in Philadelphia’s northern suburbs, celebrates schools’ successes with the students “to stay focused on the small wins vs. the big downs” that poor policy delivers. Sichel is personally energized by her ability to have influence beyond Abington by mentoring incoming professionals to leave a legacy and “keep public education alive.”

The daily routine of Dallas Dance, superintendent of Baltimore County Schools, includes praying, working out and staying connected to his own children and to his colleagues and the district’s 112,000 students. Letting go of the negative interactions and starting each day with a blank slate helps sustain positive energy. As Dance explains, “Most parent complaints are about the role I’m playing — not about me personally.”

When leaders have a core connection to the work, they are optimistic about meeting “insurmountable” challenges. Maintaining this attitude is essential to courageous leadership. As Newsome states, “Each one of us has the ability to set the temperature for the room. It’s important to come in daily with the brightest of views in the toughest of times: We are leaders; others feed off us, and if we aren’t optimistic, they don’t stand a chance.”

For the outline of all five courageous leadership principles and the complete article, see AASA.org

Copy Right © 2017 America Association School Administrators

Highlights from ASCD 2016


The movement to assure excellence for all students gains momentum following a standing ovation by 8,000 educational leaders at the ASCD annual convention in Atlanta this weekend:

“Equity is the issue of our times. Our children are experiencing great trials and challenges due to the underlying issues of inequity—all for being born onto lonely islands of economic despair surrounded by vast oceans of wealth and prosperity…”
(click here to read the full ASCD article)

View Twitter highlights of Alan and Pedro @ ASCD 2016

Join tens of thousands of your peers in advancing excellence for all your students by using this new approach to equity.

Here are 4 ways you can get started:

1 – Read a summary of the keynote by Alan Blankstein and Pedro Noguera on Excellence through Equity at ASCD’s annual conference by clicking here.

2 – Learn more and register HERE for Alan and Pedro’s upcoming Excellence through Equity summits.

3 – Work together with Alan and Pedro in your region and district. Contact us.

4 – Get a copy of the book Excellence through Equity: Five Principles of Courageous Leadership to Guide Achievement for Every Student here.


Photo highlights of ASCD 2016

AASA on Courageous and Uplifting Leadership – Part Two

(the following is an excerpt from a forthcoming issue of The School Administrator.  See AASA.org)

Part 2: Face the facts and your fears.

Data reflecting poor performance, especially among subgroups, often become the catalyst to action. In Abington, Pa., the data showing gaps between the majority of the student body and minority and special education students compelled district leaders to ask whether being a good district was enough. In North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg district, with its 147,000 students, Superintendent Ann Clark used data indicating wide gaps in reading proficiency to galvanize the schools and the community to change course.

Courageous leaders don’t use data as a weapon but rather as a tool for improvement. They don’t leverage fear to achieve greater results, but focus on how to collectively face the challenge and become mutually supportive and accountable for meeting the needs of students. The goal is improving the action, not punishing the actor.

Awash in data, courageous leaders focus on making data manageable, meaningful, and a catalyst for improvement. Sichel uses what she terms “getting results teams.” They are building-based, mixed groups that analyze student results, select focus areas of concern, develop a specific action plan and prepare progress reports for her toward continuous student achievement.

Lessons from Opt Out: The Anti-test Movement

Lessons from Opt Out: The Anti-test Movement

While the number of families saying “no” to high stakes tests for their children are growing nationwide, New York State stands at the vanguard of this movement. Last month, the number of children opting out of tests rose by more than 300% since last year in New York. Last month, 165,000 students — or one of six eligible students– opted not to take standardized tests, representing a substantial increase over the 49,000 students opting out in 2014.

In New Jersey, 14.5% of 11th graders sat out the new tests. Weeks ago, Governor Hickenlooper of Colorado signed a law eliminating certain tests and requiring districts to allow parents to keep their children out of state tests. Given all that is at stake, it is helpful to have an analysis of the driving forces behind this movement, and some attending lessons outlined below:

How is even more important that what when it comes to implementation. Generally speaking, people will (and do) follow bad ideas that are presented in an engaging manner quicker than they will a good idea that comes to them via command, or fiat. I have asked thousands of educators during presentations in the past 2 years “Who is against the content of Common Core?” No one has yet raised their hand. I then ask “who is opposed to the way it is being implemented?” Virtually everyone raises a hand.

When I sat with 6 organizational leaders and two top DOE representatives at the NEA Headquarters for the Transformational Dialogues focused on Common Core in 2010, it became clear that there was not yet an implementation plan in place. The one used in NY State resulted in the resignation of Commissioner John King last year, and has led to a backlash in districts throughout the state.

Good people with good intentions often conceive of great advances for their constituents. Yet the implementation of these concepts is at least as important as the ideas themselves.

Failure isn’t an option for some parents. While poor children and their parents have been labeled failures for far too long, this is a unacceptable for middle class families at the heart of the current opt out movement in New York. Statewide only 31% of students were proficient in last year’s English test. While testing companies gaining billions of Common Core dollars, and politicians who are closely aligned with this industry make glib announcements about “adjustment periods,” parents don’t see failure for their children as insignificant collateral damage. They see their children suffering.

This opens up an opportunity to reevaluate failure as a viable option for any child. If a child’s life chance for happiness and economic independence is tied to success on a test, isn’t it our job as the adults in that child’s life to assure that he or she succeeds? As my coauthor Pedro Noguera and I point out in our recently released book, Excellence through Equity: Five Principles of Courageous Leadership to Guide Achievement for Every Student, the zero sum game is a tired and broken paradigm. All students perform better when schools focus on equity, even students who are already high-performing.

Relationships rule. While I respect many of Governor Cuomo’s qualities, and those of our new State Commissioner, and have great affinity for John King and his extraordinary intellect, my daughter’s 3rd grade teacher and her productive work with my child is more important. When parents start to see the tremendous burden and stress being placed on their local teachers and principals who also happen to be their neighbors and friends, who will these parents support? Will parents’ respect for the Governor trump the relationships with their children’s teachers? Not likely according to common sense, and every PDK/Gallup poll for the last half century.


The only political lever left to assure that parents opt back into tests for their children is the financial lever. That is a heavy handed approach that will gain compliance at best, but never commitment. What is needed is a strategy that truly engages all stakeholders in ways consistent with what motivates real people (see Daniel Pink’s book, Drive; or my own book, The Answer is in the Room). Using a hammer to fix a crack in the wall leads to a large hole in the wall. Instead, perhaps it’s time to deal with the real and legitimate concerns of the human beings affected by a policy-driven agenda that has left them out of the planning.

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.

Lessons from Nelson Mandela

Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama will join millions to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela today and attempt to capture the essence of his greatness. Arne Duncan began the week with this quote from the extraordinary world leader: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use the change the world,” And indeed Mandela did. When asked to boil the essence of the man by John Anderson this week, Maya Angelou did not hesitate: ” He had enough courage to stand up and say ‘I am one’… to say I am a person who dares to care for other human beings… Courage is the number one virute without which you can’t practice any of the others.” In the award-winning Failure Is Not an Option book, I drew from her, Mandela, our Honorary Chair, Arch Bishop Tutu, and other great leaders across time to decipher the essence of “Courage” and return it to those who “care for other human beings” as part of their profession — educators. Thus Mandela’s passing reminds us of this greatness within, distilled in these five axioms:

1. Getting to your core — carifying as leaders and stewards of our children’s future who you are and why you have endeavored education as your life’s work. Mandela made his quest for social equity clear in his famous trial of 1964: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” What is at your core?

2. Assuring Constancy of purpose — following closely with the first axiom, this allows sway in strategy but not in mission. After the killing of 69 innocent countrymen at Sharpville township in 1960, Mandela led the ANC on a new road to armed insurrection. He later forswore violence and explained that violence “was not moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.” So wether we use Common Core, STAR, Project-Based Learning or the latest tech as our strategy, it is essential to hold tight to our vision and mission that defines us and success with our students.

3. Create organizational meaning — Incoherence and multiple, even competing priorities, are challenges for educators today. Likewise, Mandela had many competing interests and voices to take into consideration as he and his team formulated their focused strategy for advancing their cause of freedom. As Arch Bishop Tutu shared with me, quiet and reflective time — even while under perilous fire — is essential to long-term success.

4. Face the facts and your fears — The common competitor to this axiom is hubris and emotion. Few believed that South Africa would avoid what ArchBishop Tutu recently referred to as a “Blood bath” (invitational symposium October 8, 2013; Capetown, S.A) following the collapse of Apartheid. Yet in 2007, when asked about forgiving his captors, Mandela replied: “Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.” The facts were clear to him as was the strategy for moving forward. How and when do school leaders clarify what are those vital facts are and how then to best proceed?

5. Create sustainable relationships — Many of our politicians divisively use education as a tool for professional advancement; and some corporations see it as an industry to tap. Mandela, by contrast valued education to the point of helping form “Robbin Island University” in which prisoners taught one another various skills and languages including Afrikaans — the languge of their captors. When his lawyer first visited him in prison, Mandela shocked the eight guards around him by introducing each by name and referring to them as “my guard of honor.” His long term vision led him to invite one of those guards to his inauguration, an act few in US politics would even consider for colleagues across the isle. Yet is was these and so many such relations that allowed Mandela to advance toward actualizing his personal mission which was the greater good of his people, the country, and luckily, the rest of us.

May Mandela’s lessons prevail over the pettiness that divides us. And may he rest in peace as we act on those lessons.