Sunday, November 16, 2014


Data storage...

I needed some quick info on data storage to solve backup needs. Drives, flash drives… prices, places, models, ratings… quick research.

Then that surfing thing happened…
"Too tired, distracted, heading off in a direction you didn't quite intend…" but in this case sort of related.

20 minutes and a series of links later, I found this clip below on the advancement of data storage.

A conversation I had with students recently about 'how fast technology is advancing' must have been bouncing around in my head somewhere.

I was telling students about a Mac SE/30 I used to own with a 40mb hard drive and 4 mb of ram.

Smartphones are now featuring over 100GB of flash storage… and Seagate is shipping 8 terabyte hard external drives for under $200.

Makes you wonder what these devices will be doing 20 years from now, doesn't it?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Myth of the Superstar Superintendent… really?

'Creating a path' from
In 'The Myth of the Superstar Superintendent,' Eric Westervelt makes a case that Superintendents really aren't that important… that they don't have a substantial impact on student achievement.

Sorry, I disagree.

They do, and in many ways. Positive and negative depending on how they conduct business.

I've interviewed over 300 people on the qualities of effective leadership over the last three years at schools across the globe. Here are the things they've prioritized in my conversations, and that I agree on personally in 25 years in education.

1. Budgeting and financial oversight

Districts that don't manage money get themselves in piles of trouble.

We've all seen or heard of districts and/or schools in financial ruin. Think those intense budget woes don't have an effect on learning?

Me too.

Run a multi-million dollar business without effective fiscal leadership/oversight? Ok, good luck with that.


One tenured Principal I interviewed two years ago described it this way:

The best Superintendents I've worked for have been great at helping us focus priorities and achieve goals, not just at my school but across our district.

Principals are in charge of buildings. Oversight of a larger picture is critical I think.

Tough decisions… and important.

2. Dealing with union/labor grievances

Handling grievances improperly can cost districts large amounts of money in litigation, academic development gridlock, and cascade morale problems. Helping principals deal with these in a timely fashion and then investigating the root cause and setting corrective plans in motion has the highest value.

3. Contract negotiations

Negotiating these waters with Unions, often inexperienced boards, and the public can be tricky. Superintendent's play a key role in this function.

Those three seem to be the low hanging fruit, so to speak, when I've interviewed school leaders on the qualities of effective leadership in education.

My head starts to hurt when I think of such things being cast as 'unimportant' or having little to no impact on student achievement.

Here are three more things I've seen and so many folks have mentioned in my travels, and I agree… all pretty important.

The Galactic Senate Chamber from 
1. Establishing, educating, managing, and governing board policy. 

For many school leaders and teachers I've interviewed, this is a 'prime directive' of sorts for Superintendents. Most acknowledged that their Superintendent did this well... or wished they did.

It's common knowledge that dysfunctional boards can cripple a school district. Rogue initiatives, self-directed interests, unprofessionalism in communication that leads to distrust, apathy, and wavering public support for even the best of initiatives within a school district can all result. That anarchy, I'd argue ultimately effects student achievement.

Here are three common problems described to me by Superintendents, Principals, and teachers and many parents regarding school boards. I chose the best quotes from all my interviews toward these points:

Some people approach their board term with an axe to grind. They disagree with everything, and want to change everything. There's no analysis really. They're just angry. 
Some work toward initiatives that will benefit their own children at the expense of any and all others in their path.
Everything, and I mean everything, is an emergency with some boards. It's exhausting. 

Fostering that culture and expectations of the boards purpose, functions, and protocols are are essential.

One Principal I interviewed said this:

The best Superintendents can navigate and educate difficult boards and Board Chairs. They are policy and procedure hounds. They make sure things go smoothly and remain civil. They're great at squelching people who are basically just generating noise. When they can't do that with some board members, they can still run interference so we can do our jobs well. Slowly that person who's so troublesome on the board gains experience or, well, just goes away.

Innovative districts often don't have 'proactive and highly functioning school boards' by accident. The ones that do it consistently have process and policy… rather than simply luck.

Superintendent fodder to educate the board chair and members on board policy? 


Takes skill, too.

2. Firing and Hiring

Public schools often experience complete gridlock when they try to let employees go, even after thorough due process and diligence. Ultimately it costs students a lot of money and growth potential. I've spoken to many who have voiced stories about the worst employees being shuffled and buried in within the school. It can go on for decades. Excellent school leaders are skilled at getting rid of people who do what they do very poorly. 

Hiring, the best of it anyway, centers around creating a vision. Replacing excellent school leaders and teachers with more of the same or better takes skill and some vision. It implies governance of mission and not of personal agenda (hiring friends who might not be suited for the job), or ego. 

Overseeing these two processes well is critical to lasting success in so many important ways.

3. Oversight

"It's an 'avoiding bureaucracy' sort of thing."

Principals can control this… or cause it. Who oversees principals when schools internally can be heavily bureaucratic? Who oversees a Curriculum Director?

Change is difficult, often mired by an ineffective process. For those working in schools, this is known as 'committee hell.' Committees, subcommittees, task forces - whatever you call them - schools can debate even the smallest structural or pedagogical change for years, and sometimes decades. Tenured people often stop volunteering for committees eventually… and then laugh at the younger ones who do who then fall victim to the same cycle. There are three 'oversight' threads here I'm thinking of in this one that is critical for principals and ultimately Superintendents, listed below as items a - c below.

a. 'Committee to Shelf' Initiative Governance

Talk to a person who's been in education for more than two decades and it's likely they can spout off a series of 'latest and greatest initiatives to come down the pike.' Citing most recent examples like No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Race to the Top, and now Common Core makes them easy to remember. For many schools, it all boils down to another initiative that goes in another binder on a shelf somewhere until the next thing comes along. No followup… no purpose that's quantitative or qualitative, just busy work. 

Some of the best Superintendents help create/facilitate frameworks, or logic models outlining future steps and rationale with principals and curriculum directors and make them transparent to faculty, parents, and ultimately students. Otherwise, many of those initiatives are run in isolated pockets… and go on a shelf... or scatter.

b. Managing self-righteousness/self-justification

Ever see a new person climb into a new position and generate copious amounts of work for those around them? Me too.  

Here's part of a conversation from a Superintendent who wished to remain anonymous.

"Prior to my arrival there had been a series of curriculum directors over a short period of time. These people were well intended but headed in different directions and generated incredible, and I mean INCREDIBLE, amounts of work for people. There was no oversight of these initiatives as to their purpose, workload or goals for that matter. By the time I arrived nobody was interested in talking about curriculum anymore. Everything was fractured with no thought on progression from grade level to grade level."

Finding a top-level school leader, like a Superintendent, who can corral such things into goals, thoughtful process, and common sense is... critical. 

c. Future thinker... that can implement

From the article I'm questioning:

"A good superintendent empowers leading visionary principals and teacher leaders at the school," she says. But what actually happens too often is that superintendents "squash interesting ideas, so you'd have principals afraid to try something new, afraid to try something innovative."

I believe the best Superintendents are future thinkers… and they can put it in motion. It's not to say that they have to come up with all the ideas themselves. The just can recognize great work, apply common sense, fiscal balance, big-picture thinking… and implement the idea.

Simple right?

It takes skill in big systems.

They actively think and drive practices toward creative and engaging learning opportunities for students.

They evaluate current practices and adjust priorities.

Ok, back to the last job functions I see as critical.

4. They encourage innovation

They encourage it, mean it, and meet with people regularly to help ideas move forward.

Discussions on innovation can go in circles year to year with little to no movement. People drop out of committees and task forces, especially when they duplicate efforts over years. Great Superintendents help move road blocks to make things happen. 

5. They delegate and build great leaders within the system

Great Superintendents build cultures where leaders work together and problem solve together. Each person within the system sees themselves as part of a team, part of a district. System choices are made thoughtfully.

I heard many horror stories here of compartmentalization, dissension, micromanagement, and severely penalty based cultures here. Pretty horrific stuff. 

Team building and fostering individual growth and ideas is the goal.

6. People want to work with them

You know… they're nice!

I shudder to put this 6th actually. Every single person I interviewed who worked in schools had either high praise on this one or a series of horror stories.

Being nice goes a long way. One Principal I interviewed two years ago on 'the traits of the best school leaders' said it this way:

Want to work with a bully? Someone who fosters a culture of fear? Someone who lashes out when challenged? How about someone who is extremely temperamental or monstrously egotistical? Didn't think so. People under those leaders get scared and often burned. They shut their doors and hide and ride it out. They stop innovating. That's when things get compartmentalized.
An understanding due process, civil rights, policy, and procedure are critical as well. Districts who avoid these four items often find themselves in chaos. Employees fall victim to hearsay, innuendo, and often legal battles. I've known many in schools over my career who have fallen victim to corrupt and unfair process.

The best Superintendents? They're fair, kind, and have respectful leadership skills. They work with people, not at them. They bring out the best in people. 

In summary

Through the muck. Picture from
In all my interviews, people seem to agree:

Superintendents can drive things into ruin. 

They can be figureheads, ineffective and absent.

They can also be educational leaders who provide ways and means for people to innovate.

These are the basic things people discussed with me in their wishes in Superintendent leaders.

All of them, over time, and in direct and indirect ways can have significant impacts on student achievement. It's not just an analysis of how test scores faired during their tenure. It's about what opportunities they created, who they inspired, and what actually happened.

Hard stuff to measure sometimes. More of a good common sense thing I think.

The key is finding a person who can do these things I've mentioned.

Otherwise... things fall apart, the wheel keeps spinning… and good people burn out. Ultimately, students achieve less when they don't have systems in place which help them reach their potential. Adults too. Who knows what damage that can actually do.

I'll take the superstar, thanks.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Refocusing Advisory in Schools


It's a strange mission for some schools.

In my travels I've seen many feel advisory at their school is broken, scattered and basically ineffective.

Some others though have focused around a simple mission…

connecting with students.

It's a simple mission. But as with many simple and elegant things, there's a good deal of complexity and hard work behind them.

Here's a visual tale of sorts, not a presentation… but rather a simple booklet that I hope will stir up conversations on this topic for the better.

We win.

(best viewed in full screen)

Sunday, November 9, 2014

VT Fest 2014... and moving forward...

Vermont Fest 2014 is a wrap... and I'd say by the feedback I've viewed thus far we're on the right track.

I've been the emcee for many conferences and sessions, but the credit to make events like this happen ranges far and wide. There's a lot that goes on behind the scenes to make events like this work.

My sincere thanks to the following...

The passionate educators who presented at this years conference and embraced the theme of 'Creative Learning in Agile Schools.' The feedback from these sessions has been excellent. We'll make the feedback for each presenter available soon and use that feedback to steer our next round of selections.

The folks who staffed the Maker section, and my friend Caleb Clark from the VITA-Learn (VL) board who organized and facilitated the space. All these great folks gave attendees a chance to learn. 'Mind and hand,' the motto from MIT, is something we're pursuing here and to keep encouraging educators to move more activity into their classrooms and create deeper learning opportunities. Getting students involved rather than being passive observers... Gary Stager, the keynote speaker from DL last Spring, spins it as "less us, more them." I've always liked that motto since I heard it so many years ago when I heard Gary and the great Seymour Papert speak so many years ago in Maine.

Chris Lehmann from the Science Leadership Academy (SLA) got us off to a great start with the opening keynote. The elegance of simplicity, and the complexity and hard work behind it is something I've admired about Chris' work and of the other folks from SLA. As always, Chris set a good tone and gave people some ideas to rally around.

Matt Dunne, Head of Community Affairs at Google, whipped up the perfect closing keynote. Humorous, thought provoking, and with a few challenges was the perfect recipe to end a very busy few days.

The Killington Grand makes a great stage for VT Fest. We'll be exploring some ideas to create some new learning spaces, and expand our social activities and the pacing of the event itself to help attendees have more time to collaborate and enjoy these great facilities.

Our sponsors for the event, executive and corporate, generate a lot of opportunities for attendees to explore. We'll be working with these folks for our next slate of events to promote more interactive learning opportunities.

Our tech crew, Fred Wadlington, Mike Lambert, and the folks from the resort did some great work. Setup was streamlined for the presenters and Wifi connectivity was exceptional this year, the best we've seen since VT Fest landed at the Grand more than 10 years ago.

Steve Jarrett, our Communications Director at VL did great work leading up to, during, and now following the event. The VL website, conference website, and our conference flow on does take some time to craft and Steve stays on top of it all. We've got some changes on the way that will make these even better.

The VITA-Learn board who has refocused it's efforts over the last two years toward creativity at our conferences and regional PD. Our conferences should fulfill a mixed bag of needs. They should constantly expand beyond tools themselves and delve more deeply into promoting connections with students, and encouraging creativity and pedagogical growth both personally and professionally. We're making some great progress.

Our explorative and creative focus on the VL board made possible by our Executive Director and my good friend Paul Irish. Board work can be a chore, especially if it's mired in production work. Paul streamlines this demand so we can focus on creativity and we're all grateful for it. Ed Barry and Susan Hoffer, the longtime conference directors do a ton of work behind the scenes to make things work and flow. As a board, we can pass on our creative ideas and research to these folks and collectively we can set things in motion.

For my part as emcee, VITA-Learn (VL) President, and one of the organizers, it's a privilege to work with all thee talented folks to move things forward.

I spent the weekend resting up, reflecting, reading and jotting down some ideas for the future. Karyn Vogel's reflective post from VT Fest 2014 is one of my favorites I've read thus far. The Twitter hashtags we used for the event #VTFest2014 and #vtED will show you what was cooking as well.

Personally, I saw so many folks... many familiar faces and many new ones. Catching up, laughing, exploring, and crafting new ideas in these setting is always both healing and inspiring.

It's a lot of work... and we've done a great job of distributing it all and collaborating on creativity.

If you had fun at this years VT Fest 2014, DL last Spring, or the 1-1 conference, spread the word.

We're just getting started.

We've got some great ideas brewing already.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

VT Fest 2014, Creative Learning in Agile Schools

I've arrived at VT Fest 2014 in Killington, VT.  Exploratory workshops are already underway today. It's great to see  many familiar faces, and equally great to see so many new ones as well. 

Chris Lehmann from the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia cranks up with an opening keynote tomorrow morning, and Matt Dunne, Head of Community Affairs at Google is closing on Friday afternoon. In between there are mixed bag sessions for diverse groups and needs... introductory tools, more exploratory sessions, passionate projects, maker lab / space development, on through advanced pedagogical / philosophical challenges. 

Twitter hashtags for the event... #VTed and #VTFest2014 

I've been working on the VITA-Learn board over the last couple years as President to help push these conferences in some new directions. The first step was Dynamic Landscapes last Spring 2014 at Champlain College... Gary Stager did the keynote and Joyce Valenzia closed up. We introduced some great changes to there... full maker space staffed by experts and students, kids doing presentations, lots of hands on development, and mixed sessions, traditional presentations, un-conference collaborative sessions and immersive workshops. We've carried over some of that to VT Fest here this year... but we're just getting started. It's likely VT Fest will look very different next year ; )

We have a lot of ideas brewing already... and we've got a lot to discuss on these fronts. I'll be hosting a few impromptu round tables over the next few days to hear from folks what they'd like to see in the next few years in Vermont conferences. 

If you're reading this post and have ideas, send me a note or if you're at VT Fest, pull me aside and let's chat on some ideas.

Keep challenging people, keep collaborating, keep moving forward...

Presenting at #educon !

I just received an invite to present at #educon in Philly in January 2015!

It's an honor to be in the mix. I'll mashup a conversation on Theory into action steps... a look into the best practices of many innovative schools around the globe. Walk away with ideas for your school or district with simple changes schools can make that don't cost anything, can open up creativity, increase collaboration and learning, and set in motion some creative challenges for how we view 'school.'  

Many thanks to the great folks at SLA for the opportunity. Can't wait!