Author Archives: Michael Gielniak

Is America’s Obsession with Competition Improving Learning Outcomes?

Two popular educational movements at the moment in the United States are Personalized Learning, and Growth Mindset. Personalized Learning is by far the most popular, although most interventions are not very personal. Who could deny, however, that meeting the needs of every student individually is a good thing? Special Education has always understood the importance, and has long-standing strategies to meet the specific needs of children with disabilities. I question, however, if school districts have a culture of learning that truly values students’ ideas, and provides them with opportunities to guide their own path. What I see most often are command and control environments, with adults making all of the decisions, controlling the environment, providing the content, and maybe providing students with some choices about how they demonstrating outcomes.

Growth Mindset is another popular idea in many schools today. The theory involves a learner’s beliefs about his/her intelligence. If the student believes their intelligence is not fixed, and it is possible for them to grow, learn, and improve with individual effort, it is believed the student will work harder, and ultimately achieve more. The opposing belief is that intelligence is fixed, so no amount of effort is going to change that. One would think the belief in a fixed mindset would be rare in education circles, but one can see clues everywhere that reveal the opposite. Many students, for example, say they are terrible at math and could never achieve at the levels of the “smart kids.”

The question I have is

“If, as an educator, you believe that growth mindset and personalization are important for the development of your students, why are you promoting and reinforcing the opposite through your actions?”

Let me provide a quick example from a recent personal experience. Those of you who have read my other articles know that I use my children as examples in my writing. We live within the public school boundaries of one of the largest school districts in our state that has received numerous accolades for the education they provide. My intent is not to single them out, but to use them as a real world example of what I see and hear in schools everywhere. I believe the experience I will share here also falls into this category.

Last week I attended my younger daughter’s (Sophia) Honors Night. Students who were going to be honored (about 1/3 of the students in her grade) were sent an invitation, but without an indication of the award they would receive. As the day approached students were given a bunch of directives, and were told that if they didn’t follow them they would not be allowed to participate in the ceremony (e.g., what they could and could not wear, where they had to be at what time, behavior standards during the ceremony, etc.). It reminded me of the orientation we attended when Sophia was transitioning from elementary school to junior high. The principal spoke for 5 minutes about how they care about the growth and success of every child, and then the assistant principal explained the rules and consequences of breaking the rules for an hour and a half. I was surprised then that they didn’t seem to understand that even though they talk about personalization and growth mindset, their actions are all about controlling student behaviors.

So we arrived at honors night, on time and appropriately dressed, and the ceremony began. The principal welcomed everyone and told us how excited she was that there were so many hardworking students in the school that were doing so well. There were about 150 students in attendance from a class of about 600. She also explained that each department head would give an award, one student would receive the principal’s award, and then students would receive their other academic achievement awards for grade point average and high achievement on the state standardized test.

When the principal finished her remarks she called the first department head to the podium. As this teacher began describing the characteristics of the student who would win the award I noticed something interesting. More than half of the students became very attentive. Almost in unison they turned their heads toward the stage, sat up in their chairs and leaned forward. Then, as the name of the winning student was read, the students immediately slumped back into their chairs. At first I thought I might have been seeing things, but as the students progressed through these same synchronized body movements during the announcement of each new award, it really looked quite astounding. It reminded me of a body breathing, starting with a steady expansion of the lung and chest as one breaths in, and then the collapse of the chest and lung as one breaths out. Because there were 9 or 10 of these awards the pattern could be clearly established.

I started wondering what was going on in the students’ heads. I also wondered how the students were picked for the awards. Everybody invited was a good student, so what were the differentiators? We were provided a few clues during the teacher comments. Two teachers mentioned that the recipient was a good rule follower. Several teachers provided anecdotes of their personal relationship with the student, and how much they liked them. I also noticed that the same four students won all of the awards.

I asked Sophia on the way home what she thought of the ceremony, and we wound up having one of those spirited conversations I cherish so much. She started in a somewhat snotty tone by saying, “Did the goth girl, who is an A student and has amazing drawing skills win the fine arts award? No. Did the dorky kid that seems to know everything about history, who annoys the teacher with his questions, and is always getting into arguments with him win the social studies award? No. Did the math student that shows the teacher a different way to solve a problem every day, and corrects the teacher when he is wrong win the math award? No. The whole thing was stupid. The same goodie-goodies get to do everything and win everything.”

I mentioned to her about my observation of the students, and she said, “When the Spanish teacher started reading the characteristics of her winner I thought she was talking about me.” I agreed that I thought it sounded exactly like her. “I was really bummed when I didn’t get it, and I sort of feel bad about myself right now, like I’m not doing something right. I try super hard to give them what they want, but I think too much.”

That comment stabbed me straight through the heart – a 4.0 student feeling like she is doing something wrong and THINKING TOO MUCH!

I have been reflecting on the role of student motivation quite a bit lately. It has always been a piece of the puzzle in my work from the beginning of my education career, but I haven’t spent a tremendous amount of time investigating the research. I’m now working with a colleague on a theory of change that includes what we have learned about human motivation as one of the fundamental pillars. We believe we have found the core elements and processes that could lead to dramatic improvements in learning and student academic achievement, but human systems are complicated and are resistant to change. Let’s examine just one small aspect of the motivation pillar, as it relates to the Honors Night experience.

Professors from Cambridge University recently published their findings of a two year study of the effects of competition on students. The researchers believe that competition can have damaging effects on children’s learning, especially in the primary years. The study revealed that rewards for good grades have a negative impact, and suggest that teachers should praise “efforts” rather than success. I’m not sure I like the terminology used, but what the researchers are driving at is the idea that the outcome is only a small piece of the learning process, and if we reward good use of the process, and sustaining efforts to find answers through that process, students will have a much deeper learning experience than just trying to reproduce a fixed outcome. Schools may say they believe a growth mindset is important, but if they contradict themselves through their actions – like the extrinsic rewards system used almost everywhere – what will the children believe? This is so important because children who believe that their intelligence is fixed are less likely to make an effort to learn, whereas those who believe that their intelligence can grow continue to try, and try harder. The Cambridge researchers specifically found that “offering rewards on a competitive basis” affected pupils’ perception of their classmates. Shy children often became “increasingly quiet or subdued” or were reduced to “passive scribes of a dominant child’s ideas.” (i).

The competitive rewarding system ultimately creates winners and losers. In the case of Sophia’s Honors Night, there was 1 winner and 150 losers 9 or 10 times in a row. I think the school might think that the competition motivates students to work harder and achieve a higher standard. This may be true for a few students who crave external validation, but the vast majority of students who were in the room that night are intrinsically motivated, and wonderful students. Since this is the case, what is the point of turning 145 of them into losers, and 5 of them into winners?

School counselors have to deal with this absurdity all the time: students whose dreams have been crushed; the non-conformist who is bullied by students, and not respected by his teachers; those who are humiliated by their lack of achievement at peer levels; the child that can never live up to his/her parent’s academic expectations; and dozens of students who are in trouble because they have given up on the system because they are tired of being told what to do, or they will never be able to “win.”

In a 2003 study (ii), researchers at Chinese University of Hong Kong found that competition can even have a negative effect on high achieving students. When student motivation was analyzed through the lens of loss aversion (the desire to avoid loss) and the endowment effect (the tendency to value our own goods more than the same goods owned by others), they saw the potential for many successful students to experience a significant negative effect on their perceived high self-worth. In order to protect the perception people have of them, and they have of themselves, they may reduce their effort in order to “win by not losing.” By not putting in the effort they can preserve the perception that they are smart, but didn’t achieve simply because they didn’t put in the effort.

In another Chinese study researchers investigated the effects of competition on learning motivation by comparing competitive classroom settings with non-competitive ones. Students in competitive conditions did perform better, but only on easy, or low level tasks. The downside of the minimal success, however, was that because students were so performance-oriented, they were more likely to sacrifice learning opportunities for better grades. We can see the same thing happen in American high schools when students take a regular class rather than an honors class in order to ensure they will preserve their grade point average. The Chinese students were also prone to having more negative self-evaluations after failure, which leads us back to the other findings around growth mindset. Another finding from the study is that competition – in particular, a competitive grading system – suggested that above-average students might be motivated by this type of competition, whereas below-average students might be discouraged by such a system.

So what does this all mean? Competition is not inherently bad for learning. I just don’t think most educators have thought through the types of competition they create, and the effects it can have on all of their students. Being forced into a competitive system where you have no chance of winning is demoralizing. Being in a competition where you don’t know the criteria by which a winner is chosen is frustrating and feels pointless. To be effective in the learning process, competition needs to be mindful of the values the learning environment is looking to promote, and should focus on improving self-performance, rather than pitting students against each other in a system that creates very few winners and too many losers. After all, human beings have evolved and continue to survive not because of competition, but rather because of a balance between competition and collaboration. Some believe the latter will actually be more essential for survival in the future.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.


Calling a State of Emergency: American High School Dropouts

Over the course of this school year I have seen a steady stream of articles touting improvements in graduation rates. As the school year began, one article that caught my eye was from the Chicago Tribune. Since I started my career in CPS I was curious to see how much dropout rates had improved (or declined). When I moved to Chicago at the start of the 80s everyone was concerned with recent increases in dropouts, which held steady for a few years at around 43%. I remember being shocked that the education system was failing so many kids in Chicago, and that city and state officials weren’t treating it like a national emergency. I quickly found out that Chicago was not alone. The same thing was happening in urban centers across the country. My hometown school district of Detroit, for example, was even worse, posting about a 50% dropout rate during the same time period.

So how does that compare to current rates?

I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the numbers in the Tribune.  The graduation rate last year in CPS was just over 73%, and it has been steadily rising for the past 5 years.  A 30% increase is obviously a tremendous improvement. It wasn’t until I was looking at the Detroit numbers recently that I started to question things. If you have been on a school board, or part of a school’s administration, you already know that there is a difference in how dropout rates and graduation rates are calculated. You may have also questioned this if you added the two in a given year and realized they don’t add up to 100%. Also, the way these rates are calculated, reported, and verified has changed several times over the years, which makes it difficult to compare.   Even if you accept the most optimistic numbers school districts provide at face value, the issue remains devastating to our nation. Let me try to illustrate my point with some visual aides.

In 1963 the civil rights movement came to a head as people from all over the country marched on Washington to protest injustice, and to hear Dr. Martin Luther King speak. The National Mall was overflowing with supporters. As a child I remember thinking I finally understood what the expression “A sea of people” meant. Here is a picture taken that day that I found through Creative Commons from the National Museum of American History.

King Speach

So what does this have to do with dropout rates? “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” Dr. King spoke so eloquently that day about the American dream, and the inalienable rights of all Americans. Although we have made strides in helping more students achieve those dreams, the fact remains that 5 times as many students in America dropped out of high school last year, than were in attendance that glorious day in 1963. That equates to approximately double the entire current population of Washington D.C.

king speech x 5

I was shocked when I realized that 1,200,000 students dropped out of high school in 2015-16, and that is in just one year. When multiplied over a generation the numbers become staggering. At the rate students are currently dropping out of high school – the rate lauded by many districts recently – the number of people who drop out will exceed the total population of New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and the rest of the top 20 largest American cities combined!

I need to take a quick bird walk here to set something straight. I have learned that the U.S. sometimes has a hard time facing reality.  I did some fact checking yesterday. An article I read stated that “The United States had some of the highest graduation rates of any developed country,” but now ranked near the bottom of the 27 developed nations. Since there was no citation in the article I wanted to track one down so I could include the comment in this blog post. I spent several hours yesterday looking for the statistics showing that the U.S. lead K-12 education worldwide at some point in our history. The reality is that the United States has never scored well in math and science compared to other developed countries, and comparative testing has not been happening very long. The Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) conducted one of the first popular studies of mathematical achievement in 12 countries in 1965. Israel and England scored the highest with a mean score in the high 30s. The United States scored the worst, with a mean score of 13.8.

We are currently ranked 22 out of the 27 countries that are considered developed. We may have improved dramatically since the 1980s, but we continue to fall further and further behind the rest of the developed world. One-point-two-million students dropped out of high school last year, and we rank 22nd out 27? Should we really be patting ourselves on the back?

We need to declare a State of Emergency on the scale of the response to hurricane Katrina. That storm ultimately devastated whole communities and displaced around 400,000 people. These Katrina victims, however, are equivalent to only 1/3 of the students that were displaced from our nation’s high schools last year. For months after Katrina there was a never-ending stream of news, commentary, and support. The American people were outraged that the governments response to the disaster, and in particular, to the inhumane treatment of people from poor minority neighborhoods.

Where is the outrage for the drop-out crisis?

Most people would probably not be surprised that facing very poor job prospects, and almost inevitable poverty, that dropouts commit about 75% of the crimes in America. It’s not Mexican immigrants, and it’s not Muslim terrorists. Most crime is being committed by our disenfranchised former students – kids that grow up to be adults without any viable path to a better future.

Where is the outpouring of concern and volunteer support?

If one were to put aside quality of life issues, and just focus on the impact the disenfranchised will have on our economy, the numbers are staggering.  At lifetime cost to taxpayers of $292,000 per each dropout, the financial burden we will have to bear from just the students who dropped out in 2016 will be $350,000,000,000. For those having trouble counting up all the zeros, that’s 350 billion, yes, with a “B,” and we are already on the hook. But this goes on year after year, decade after decade. In just one generation it could add up to as much as 8.75 trillion dollars!

Where is the avalanche of government, corporate, and private financial support?

Some of my friends and family say that students who drop out are just lazy, or angry, or have bad families. The reasoning goes that since dropping out is a choice, it’s different. They think that the issue is that simple, and is not their problem. Ask Community in Schools (CIS) if it is that simple. They are one of the few organizations that has documented success. They are different than other programs because they take a systems approach. They conduct assessments to understand the community and the students’ needs. They are committed to change over time as demonstrated by their embedded coordinator. And they are able to rally all of the non-profit and for-profit providers in the community that can meet essential needs within the community. The National Dropout Prevention Center/Network at Clemson University has a vetted database of programs and services dedicated to dropout reduction and prevention. Organizations in the database that are rated with 3 graduation caps by NDPC, like CIS, are rated as having “Strong Evidence of Effectiveness.”

CIS’ limitation, however, is that they deal primarily with community-based systems that surround the school (e.g., healthcare, after school programs, etc.), but they don’t address the systems issues within classrooms and schools (e.g., curriculum, pedagogy, distributed leadership, etc.) that need to be addressed for optimal learning to take place.

One-to-One Institute also takes a systems approach to transformation, but focuses on 7 system categories that directly affect learning, culture, and the efficient administration of schools. Our co-authored Project RED research identified key factors that lead to higher student achievement and cost effectiveness. Technology plays a key role in the transformation, but the focus is on learning and empowering students.

In Project RED Phase III we worked with 20 districts we labeled “Signature Districts.” To become a Signature District they had to commit to adhering to the Project RED Design as we tracked their progress over three school years. We are currently in the process of publishing a series of briefs on our findings. We believe that if a district follows the PR Design, students could potentially double their academic achievement, and it could be revenue neutral for the district.

There are a growing number of non-profit organizations and for profit vendors that have developed and tested learning products, and have documented results for their piece of the puzzle. There is no longer any excuse for implementing things that don’t work. The research is clear. It is possible to completely eradicate high school dropouts.

  • With so much at stake, we all must take action and build from each other’s best practices.
  • We need to find ways to help others understand that we must make this a national priority.
  • Use research, like Project RED, and visit NDPC to find other research to inform your opinions.
  • Insist that your government and education leaders utilize programs that have documented results, and can integrate their solution into your new digital systems.

It is possible to completely eradicate high school dropouts, but it won’t happen until we all commit to making it a national priority.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D

Breaking the Cycle of Failed Innovations

I recently sold my house and started packing last weekend. As I was going through my books I found one from 2008 called “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.” It started me thinking about the reactions I have witnessed in many of my teacher friends when I talk about the potential of technology to enhance the learning process. To be fair, I do understand much of the resistance. When I was in the classroom it seemed like the administration was always jumping on the latest educational fad bandwagon. One year it was Multiple Intelligences and writing across the curriculum. The next year those initiatives seemed to vanish, and we all had to focus on Differentiated Instruction and how to use the state test score data to raise math and ELA scores. All of these initiatives may have merit, but it was never clear how each fit into a bigger vision for learning, or within the curricular areas outside of math and ELA.

The biggest issue for me in adopting any of these so called innovations was that I felt like they were being done to me, not with me. I was a successful teacher with exceptional student outcomes, and awards to prove it. I thought at the time, “Why am I being forced to figure out how to retrofit my curriculum to be compliant with the district mandates, especially when the mandates didn’t even make pedagogical sense within the learning I was facilitating?” What incensed me even more, though, were the hours and hours I had to sit with the entire staff going over the analysis of our school’s state math test data, even though there was no middle or high school level math in my curriculum.

I was fortunate that I was befriended by a 35 year veteran teacher shortly after I started my first assignment. He was great at sensing my frustration, and would say with a big smile, “This too shall pass, Michael, this too shall pass.” He was right. All of the experienced teachers in my building knew that if they didn’t make waves, and just looked compliant for a year, the winds would change, and the district would be blown onto the next greatest educational innovation.

Adopting technology, for me, was different. In my 6th year of teaching, the district gave each staff member a desktop computer. Teachers who needed basic training were able to sign up for classes like “Compact Basic Operation,” or “How to use Word and PowerPoint,” but that was about the extent of the support. The district did not demand we use the computers at all. When, after two years, teachers were still not using the computers, principals tried strategies, like only communicating about meetings through email, to force teachers to use them.

Only a few early adopters experimented with ways to use the device to benefit learners. I appreciated the district not forcing the usual compliance. I was excited to have found a remediation app and was working on an efficient way to circulate struggling students through the program. Four years later, students were using computers on a regular basis in the visual arts, in a website design class, and in journalism/yearbook, but there were many teachers that still didn’t even know how to use their email.

Looking back, I can see several change leadership strategies the district and principal could have used to engage teachers and change behaviors, but why were teachers so reluctant to change?

There is an old saying that is attributed to Confucius that “No man can be rightly taught until he feels a real need in his life or in his work.” When I think about how I manage my personal and professional life now, it seems unimaginable that I didn’t purchase my first cell phone until 2001. Today all of my work is done through a laptop or smartphone. I no longer have a conventional workplace I go to each morning. Everyone I worked with during the past year, outside of school district personnel, had similar circumstances. In the corporate world we definitely feel a real need to use technology in our work. We couldn’t function without it. The efficiencies experienced in my work, as well as the ability to communicate, collaborate, and create, led me to start using the technology in my personal life.

My 9th grade daughter was born in 2001, just after I purchased that first cell phone.  For her, technology has always been “ubiquitous.” When she was around 3 years old, I remember waking up one Saturday morning, and wondering where she was. I found her in my office. She had booted up my old desktop computer, loaded one of the CD-Rom educational games I was asked to review, had set her achievement goal, and was monitoring her progress. When I asked her what she was doing she said she had seen her older sister play this game and had to try it. In Sophia’s mind, she felt a real need in her life.

Today Sophia has her own YouTube DIY Channel. She uses Facetime to gather her study group, and to collaborate with friends on a variety of personal projects. She communicates with her soccer coaches and receives automated schedule reminders through TeamSnap, and uses iPhone, iPad, Chromebook, and Windows apps to communicate, collaborate, and create in dozens of other ways. Sophia has never had any formal technology training. She simply has something she wants to do – like share the cool DIY things she comes up with – and looks for the best tools she has at her disposal to do so. In effect, she takes a DIY approach to share her DIY approach.

As the available tools change, or the popularity of certain apps dwindles, Sophia seems to migrate to new apps seamlessly. The device doesn’t seem to matter much to her, nor do the apps. It is as if she knows the technology will change, and that other companies will come up with better solutions that address issues her and her friends had with the old technology. This phenomenon is not unique to Sophia. All of her close friends have the same attitude toward technology and use it flexibly…at home.

Sophia’s flexible use of technology versus the rigid perception and usage I see in most schools is often labelled as digital natives versus digital immigrants. I don’t dispute that there is some of this going on, but there is something else at play. I’m noticing that a person’s attitude and approach to change seems to align with his/her perception of the world, and that these perceptions fall into two categories:

  1. People who view life as continuously evolving; and
  2. People who view the world as static.

In education we call these growth mindset and fixed mindset. Carol Dweck has done important work on mindset psychology traits if you want to learn more about this topic. Growth mindset, unfortunately, seems to be one of the latest buzz words in education. It is not that I think growth mindset is unimportant. To the contrary. The issue I have is that schools are trying to address growth mindset within a fixed mindset environment. Almost everything in secondary schools across the country reinforce a fixed mindset view of the world:

  • The command and control leadership style
  • The importance we place on standardized tests
  • Teachers feeling like they just need to get through the curriculum
  • The value placed on right and wrong answers
  • The amount of memorization teachers require of their students
  • The predominance of direct instruction used in classrooms

This seems to be the never-ending story in education. We try to retrofit our traditional system with a new innovation, it inevitably fails, and then we move on to the next hot innovation. Ask any 20 year veteran teacher and they will provide you with a laundry list of initiatives they have seen come and go during their career. Until we stop applying new programs like Band-Aides to fix education, and fundamentally change the way we do schooling, we will continue on this treadmill of failed innovations.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.

Check back in May for my next blog on the importance of teaching and how to embrace change as a core principle in schools.

Respect: The Foundation for Personalized Learning

Last Thursday I happened to be in the kitchen getting some coffee when my 9th grade daughter came home from school.  Sophia was in a really bad mood, but I just figured she needed a snack.  She is one of those people (like me) who can get pretty crabby when hungry.  I asked her how her day was, and she sort of mumbled something about leaving her alone.  I brushed it off and went back to work knowing she would probably be fine once she had something to eat.

Dinner time wasn’t much better.  Like lots of teenagers today, Sophia is binge-watching a TV show on her phone.  I don’t mind as long as she finishes her homework and isn’t neglecting the other things she has to do.  That has never been a problem with her.  I think she is actually the most driven, disciplined, and organized person I know.  If anything I am a little concerned that she expects too much of herself.

After asking her to shut her phone off at the table, I noticed that her attitude was the same as after school.  I asked her if something was wrong, and she had the same retort as before, but this time with a lot more emphasis!  Most people with teenage daughters know what it’s like.  It wasn’t until we were on our way to soccer practice that she began to open up.  There is something magical about a long car ride with some good music that seems to prime great conversations between my kids and me.  Out of the blue Sophia blurts out, “My school is so stupid!”  I asked her what she meant, and she started in on a 20 minute rant about her day.

“I hate having to get up so early in the morning for school.  If I want to have time to actually eat a good breakfast and take a shower I have to get up like at 5:30 am.  That’s just crazy!  When we got to school today the bus was actually a little bit early so they keep us in this one area like a bunch of penned in animals.  It’s like they think we are going to destroy the school if they actually let us go to our lockers and get ready for class.”

It was at this point I realized her story might make a poignant statement about secondary education in our country, and I wanted to capture it so I could use it later.  I asked her if she would mind if I recorded her story on my phone, and she said she didn’t care, and added “Maybe if you write about it, Pappa, my teachers might read it and actually change.”  I sort of laughed at the thought that my little blog could yield such power.  Without missing a beat she started back in.

“I wish they would let us take our backpacks to class.  I can’t possibly carry everything, so I have to go back to my locker between every class – and get to be yelled at for the privilege!  You know, sometimes my locker is on the opposite side of the school, and God forbid I have to go to the bathroom.  There is no way I could get to my locker, put my stuff away in my backpack, get all the right stuff out for the next class, go to the bathroom, and get to my next class on time.

So anyway, on Friday I put my stuff in my locker and I am sort of skipping and singing down the hallway to class, and I get yelled at to “cut it out, and get to class!”  I wanted so bad to say to him, “Cut what out? Being happy?”  It’s like some teachers I believe really think that we are not supposed to have fun at all in school.  So I get yelled at, and I’m not even doing anything.  It’s not like I was even doing anything wrong.

So then there is first hour.  I hate first hour!  We had a math test today and the teacher gave us the review sheet yesterday.  We spent the first ten minutes correcting the review sheet, and then he wouldn’t even answer any questions because we had the test.  What’s the point of giving us a review sheet if we are going to correct it the day of the test?  Aren’t we supposed to be able to study from it??

So that was the start of another wonderful day at school. Spanish class was ok.  The teacher shares things from her personal life and we do some projects, so it isn’t all just sitting there.

The next thing was at lunch.  First, it’s crazy that I have lunch a 10:30 in the morning.  Then I’m not supposed to eat anything until after school?  Lunch is like a prison.  We get yelled at to sit down, we get yelled at to stay in line, and we get yelled at to clean up.  It’s like they think we are a bunch of wild animals.

The food is horrible.  There isn’t anything fresh, and about the only good thing is the Ice’s (sparkling water), but they cost twice as much as in the store.  Anyway, so I finish my lunch and I am leaving when the teacher stops me because I have half a bottle of water in my hand.  He tells me I can’t take it out of the cafeteria, and that I have to throw it away.  I said to him “Are you serious?” and he threatened to give me detention.  I mean, come on…we’re not even allow to drink water?

I thought my day couldn’t get any worse, but in science the teacher was explaining some stuff about the periodic table.  I pulled out my phone to look up something about the charges and he walked over and took it away.  He didn’t ask me what I was doing, he didn’t ask me to give it to him.  He just took it out of my hand and put it in his desk.  It made me so mad, the only thing I could think about the rest of the class were arguments for why he is a horrible teacher.  He didn’t seem to notice.

Then in my last class I started to get a bad kink in my neck.  I tried to sit up, but that didn’t last long.  I started rubbing my neck and tried to push the corner of the hard plastic part of the top of the chair back between my shoulders, but it was hard to get into the right position in those stupid desks.  The teacher stopped what she was doing and asked me if something was wrong.  I started screaming at her in my head that “yeah there is something f$%&1#$ wrong.  I am paralyzed because I have been chained to these f$%#&@#$ seats all day.”  I didn’t actually say anything, of course, because everyone knows what she really meant was to stop messing around and pay attention.

So you keep asking me why I am in a bad mood.  I’d like to see how you would feel at the end of my day.  Knowing you, you wouldn’t even be able to get through the first class without being sent to the office!”

I chuckled and said she was probably right, but I wanted to dig a little deeper. “Ok, I get why you would be crabby, but if you could change things, what would you do?”

“Well, for starters I would let kids move around more, and go outside. We have this beautiful courtyard at school, but nobody is ever allowed to use it.  The only time I was in it was last year when a teacher made us pull weeds.”

Sophia paused for a second to collect her thoughts, and then continued.

“It’s like the teachers don’t respect the students at all.  They’re always yelling at you…they take your stuff if they think you’re doing something you shouldn’t be, without bothering to find out what was going on…they tell you to sit down and pay attention.  Like, could you imagine if I commanded a teacher to “sit down and pay attention?”  I have heard teachers say we should respect them.  Well, how can I respect them when they don’t respect me?  Just because they can make me do what they want doesn’t mean I respect them.”

And then there was a long pause.  I couldn’t believe that school is really this horrible for her all the time.  It must just be that she had a really bad day.  I decided to follow up with a positive question.  “So, what do you like about school?  There must be somethings you like?”

“My friends, and seeing what all the other kids are wearing, and what they’re doing.  I also like watching what they do, like, who they hang out with, and being able to see the different patterns and stuff.”

“OK, that’s normal”, I confirmed.  “Human beings are social animals, we learn through social interaction.  I think if you asked most students in America what they like the most about school, their response would include something about friends.  But isn’t there anything else you like about school?”  Her comment defines my whole point in this blog.

“Well, there are a couple of teachers I like.  They are nice, and they tell us things about their lives that I can relate to.  Other than that, I am told what to do all day, I don’t get to eat when I need to, I don’t get to drink when I need to, and I don’t even get to go to the bathroom when I need to.  Would you want to have to spend your whole day there every day for years?”

Obviously, no adults would tolerate another adult talking to them the way Sophia described.  The lack of respect seems obvious when you’re thinking of it in those terms.  What bothers me the most is that I think every adult in the country can relate to some of Sophia’s experiences, and unfortunately, I see these type of behaviors, and systems of command and control in almost every secondary school I visit.  The country seems obsessed with Personalized Learning right now.  It has become the latest and greatest answer to all of educations woes.  What I am often seeing in the name of personalization, however, is the implementation of a set curricula that can be adjusted for individual students, within the same old command and control structure.

I say, if you really want to help students personalize learning, start with building a culture of respect for each student.  Until that has been established, it isn’t even possible for the student to engage in the meaningful ways it would take for them to truly personalize their learning.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.

Change Leadership: A New Focus for Administrator Preparation Programs

One-to-One Institute’s newsletter this month focuses on the role higher education can play in the transformation of learning and teaching in the K-12 system. When discussing higher education programs the bulk of the conversation, rightfully so, tends to focus on teachers. We learned, however, through our Project RED research that principals play a paramount role in whether or not a 1:1 implementation is academically successful and financially sustainable.

We have been investigating the beliefs and actions of principals for the past couple of years, and the effects these beliefs have on teachers, students, and learning. When I started formulating my ideas for this article I decided to match the course content being taught in a couple of popular graduate programs for school administrators with the list of Key Implementation Factors, and other essential elements and best practices we have gleaned from our work. I found that there are pieces missing in the area of pedagogy and instruction, but there are two areas that seem to have been completely left out, namely change leadership, and project management.

Change Leadership

The education landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade. The number of students in charter schools instead of traditional public schools more than doubled, from 3.1 to 6.6 percent. Enrollment has also continuously increased in online courses during the same period. According to the Online Learning Consortium, “The number of students taking online courses grew to 5.8 million nationally (2015-16), continuing a growth trend that has been consistent for 13 years.” In order to combat enrollment lose, and to provide an educational experience more personalized to an individual student’s interests, most public schools have initiated magnet programs within the district. According to the NCES database there were approximately 1.2 million students enrolled in magnet programs. By 2015 that number grew to more than 2.5 million.

There have been many other changes even within the traditional public school system. Schools have experimented with ideas such as Personalized Learning, Inquiry-based Learning, Design Thinking, Flipped Learning, and Blended Learning, to name but a few. More content area digital programs become available every day, as well as content and platforms designed for students that fall into other specialized categories such as special education, ELL, and credit recovery. Change is all around us in education, and doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon.

Since change seems to be the new normal, principals need to develop the requisite skills to lead change. It is simply not acceptable, or effective any longer to be a building manager. College programs seem to be doing a reasonable job of emphasizing the importance of the principal as instructional leader, but they must also help aspiring administrators understand the principles of change leadership. Developing an understanding of human motivation, for example, can lead to developing strategies for the co-creation of a new vision for learning and the learning environment. Through their college experience students may also need to challenge their beliefs about control and authority. Students need to explore the concept of organic growth, and systems of continuous improvement, and investigate the research on the effects of command and control mechanisms.

Project Management

Understanding how to lead change, and develop systems of continuous improvement are both extremely important for administrators to learn, but without the skills to manage the implementation of an innovation, it is highly likely that the implementation will flounder, and ultimately fail. I’ve noticed that very little importance is placed on professional project management in schools. When a district decides to build a new school, however, there are a number of outside professional that are hired. A project manager (title may vary) is always one of those professionals, and acts as the liaison to the district, as well as managing the details of the construction. On the other hand, when a district spends large sums of money on technology they seem to misunderstand the complexity of proper implementation, and therefore, fail to see the need for the investment in a trained project manager. They may appoint someone in the central office to oversee the project, but in these instances much of the fidelity of implementation fall to the principal. I’m not suggesting that schools of education should provide every administrator candidate full project management training, but making them aware of the basic principles, and the importance of the position could lead them to advocating for a project manager, or seek the help they need if the job ultimately falls on their shoulders.

It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone in education that the principal is often tasked with managing the implementation a several new programs at the same time. They wear many different hats, and often play the role of the fireman, cop, counselor, and the human resources director, all in the same day. With the number of duties assigned to principals, and their hectic daily schedules, it is highly unlikely they will find the time to focus on developing project management and change leadership skills on their own. Therefore, college graduate programs must embrace this content within their programs. To a great extent success in any field in the future will hinge on a person’s ability to facilitate and manage change. We know clearly from our Project RED research that if principals don’t have these skills, the learning environment will not change, and even the best new programs will ultimately fail.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.

The Challenge of Raising Student Achievement

Raising student achievement has been a goal in every district I have ever worked. It is discussed in political circles, in the media, and even at cocktail parties. Defining student achievement, and the different things students need today to be successful in life is a conversation for another day.  For the purposes of this article I would like to share an article I found on the topic.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s article “Focus on Learning: Promising Strategies for Improving Student Achievement,” effective schools exhibited the following characteristics:

  • A strong focus on ensuring academic success for each student;
  • A refusal to accept excuses for poor performance;
  • A willingness to experiment with a variety of strategies;
  • Intensive and sustained efforts to involve parents and the community;
  • An environment of mutual respect and collaboration; and
  • A passion for continuous improvement and professional growth

I agree with the importance of each of these characteristics, although I would add a couple of items, and would order them differently. I think creating an environment of mutual respect and collaboration is most important. Without these values providing the foundation, and permeating classroom relationships between teachers and students, it is very difficult to learn there. Then, if a continuous improvement process is put into place, and everyone (students, teachers, administrators, and even parents) is committed to learning through these processes, good things will eventually happen.

What is missing from the list are some of the things we have learned through our Project RED research and our work with schools. The list is missing a carefully designed system for educators to investigate and experiment with the characteristics, and process for them to learn how to learn from experimentation and decide on the next action. This doesn’t seem to come easy to many educators. Therefore, teachers often need to be closely guided and supported throughout several iterations of the process. The list also either neglects, or assumes the role of the instructional leader. It is imperative to have a skilled change leader at the school level that can develop and initially guide the process, as well as encourage teachers to stay the course.

It was refreshing to see a systems way of thinking about education reform in the article, rather than pushing variations of the same programs inspired by the failed standards and accountability movement for the past 40 years. The USDOE isn’t really espousing a systems approach, per se, but the findings that are attributed to success are much more conceptual in nature, and allude to the importance of a continuous process of investigation, reflection, and action. I find it a little ironic that the only way to dramatically raise student achievement at scale is for all teachers to become effective learners themselves. The content of teacher learning may vary greatly, but the process needs to focus on investigating, experimenting with, and improving the ways they help each individual student learn.

The biggest challenge I have with the article, personally, is that it was written as if these are new insights, and if we could only figure out how to scale them, we could dramatically improve student achievement nationwide. The article, however, was written in 1998, and it was actually developed as a as a guide for state and local leaders on how to turn around low-performing schools.

What happened to the potential of these findings? Why haven’t we improved student achievement by scaling the learning from this guide? There are several possible reasons. It is possible not many educators saw the guide. It is likely that it was not broadly marketed. Companies and advocacy organizations spend a tremendous amount of time and money marketing their solutions. The USDOE guide would be only one small ripple in a sea of programs being pushed on instructional leaders.

It is more likely that many urban educators were aware of the guide since several high profile urban districts are showcased in the document. So why didn’t they implement the ideas from the guide? Unfortunately, our egos sometimes get in the way. Many of the building administrators I have worked with think they are doing the things they need to in order to be successful, and therefore, are not really open to new ideas. This response may also be the result of building administrator being overwhelmed with the many responsibilities they have that lie outside of their role as instructional leader. I have met a few that told me they simply don’t have the bandwidth to deeply engage in any new ideas. This is often evident in compliance driven systems, rather than growth-minded systems.

My belief, however, is that some educators probably did try to develop the characteristics in their schools, but it didn’t work. Often our first reaction when things aren’t working in education is to adopt an existing program, and plug it into the troubled spot. These type of “plug and play” programs usually come with a bunch of steps that teachers must follow, as well as guidance on how to implement them. Unfortunately, this never works in the long run. There is too much variability in human systems to standardize in this way, and expect it to be effective for every student.

Without much further investigation we will never know for sure why the characteristics have not been more widely adopted, but there are a couple of other things that must be considered that we have learned from our Project RED research, and our work at One-to-One Institute. First, without a strong leader who can develop a shared vision for any reform, it will not succeed. I believe most districts realize this, but may verbalize it differently. One of the questions I most often hear from administrators, for example, is “How do I get everyone to buy in to ____. There are effective ways to enlist people in someone else’s vision, but the optimal scenario is to involve all constituent groups in the development of an actionable vision. Either way, unless a majority of people in your system are supportive of the vision, and are willing to deeply engage, it is doomed to failure.

Second, unless leadership is distributed throughout the system, it will not be sustainable. The average tenure of a superintendent is currently around 3 years.  If the superintendent changes every 3 years, or sometimes even more often in our most challenging districts, the vision often dies. This happens because the roots of the vision may have not had enough time to grow, or were never effectively nurtured.

It is obvious that raising student achievement for all students is a complicated endeavor, and I have just scratched the surface of reasons why we haven’t found a guaranteed way to raise student achievement at scale. One simple truth is that we will never increase student achievement by simply adopting a program that worked somewhere else. The bottom line is that only when everyone in the learning environment engages in an effective system of continuous learning and improvement will student achievement steadily improve.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.

The New Digital Divide

For the past several years I have become increasingly concerned about growing inequities I am witnessing between our country’s most vulnerable students, and almost all others. I actually originally became aware of major differences in how we treat struggling urban students versus suburban students when I spent some time in Detroit Public Schools back in 2001. I was working with Detroit Public Television on a project for their Enrichment Channel. In our first visit to some DPS elementary schools I was immediately struck by the regimentation I saw. Students were in uniforms, and seemed to be treated like privates in the army, with the teacher acting as the drill sergeant. The schools had adopted Open Court reading program, and the principal was circulating throughout the building making sure the teachers were on the correct assignment and page number at the specific time of day that was set for the goal. The teachers had a script that was provided that administrators insisted be followed verbatim. The students all looked like compliant little robots, and the teachers I talked with seemed both frustrated and resigned to the lifeless experience their job had become. The joy, curiosity, and creativity that has always surrounded my most memorable learning experiences was completely missing.

Even though this all felt wrong to me, I didn’t want to dismiss what the schools were doing without having a better understanding of their challenges, and the results they were seeing from the implementation of the program. What I found, however, was that the students were not performing substantially better than their peers in other programs. What was more concerning to me, however, was revealed once we began our program in these schools.

The program we were there to implement and record was called Welcome to Youville. We had put together a project-based learning unit to address some of the k-8 standards and benchmarks around the concepts of community, region, and Michigan history. The main goal of the project was to have students in Detroit, and in two suburban districts create their own communities. The theory was that if students began by defining the elements of their own community, and discussed with peers what people need to have in their community to live a healthy and happy life, and then actually created a 3 dimensional representation of their dream community, they would have a much deeper understanding of the concepts than if they were to read the chapter in the textbook and fill out a worksheet.

We began by having students identify unique characteristics of their own family culture, and to bring in artifacts of their parents’ or grandparents’ that were important to their family history. The next step was to group students, and have them draw their neighborhood, and discuss the things they have in their community, and the things that may be missing. In the final steps, students were given prompts and asked to discuss the specific needs that human beings have, and the things we need in our communities in order to be healthy and happy.

What we witnesses was shocking to me at the time. The students in the suburban schools jumped right in to the activities and discussions, and seemed to be having a great time exploring the concepts. Innovative ideas emerged, and the groups discussed the need for, and feasibility of each idea. It was going exactly as we had hoped, until we began in Detroit. The students in DPS reacted completely differently to the assignment. Basically what was so shocking to me is that when the students were presented with the open-ended pieces of the project they just sat there silent. When we tried to engage them in an initial conversation about their family artifacts and traditions we were met with the same silence. We thought it might just be nervousness, but we found the same thing when we grouped them to begin discussing their neighborhoods and designing what they would want in their dream community. Students seemed to be waiting for someone to tell them specifically what to do, or for their teachers to tell them what to say, or maybe even worse, what to think. It took a tremendous amount of time and effort to make them believe we really wanted to hear their ideas, that their ideas were important, and that they weren’t going to get into any type of trouble for sharing them.  An outgoing student actually shared with us that he wasn’t sure what to do because nobody had ever asked him to share his ideas before.

By the end of the project we were able to establish a trusting relationship with most of the students, and they produced exemplary work. This instructional unit may have actually been important in a number of ways. The students definitely will not forget this project, and came away with an excellent understanding of the content. I believe, however, the more important result was that all of the students had in-depth discussions about what a community actually needs in order for its people to be healthy and happy. Unfortunately, many of the communities they live in are missing important components of a healthy community, such as a grocery store. Once they began trusting us, and started to discuss their thoughts, students not only created wonderfully imaginative communities, but seemed to be interested in becoming community activists.

I use this story to demonstrate phenomena that I am seeing now in urban schools across the country. I was hoping with all of the investment in innovation, and the creation of charters and other options for urban students that things would have improved over the past 15 years. If anything, I think the situation has actually become worse. The strategy that policy makers and education leaders have taken (i.e., higher standards, more accountability, doubling the time in content areas, reconstituting the staff and administration of failing schools, numerous charter school option, etc.) have all failed to achieve their goal, and I believe in many cases has made the problem worse. I just read an ASCD article that illustrates my point.

The way I am seeing technology being implemented in many urban settings is another example of this failed instructional approach. I call this the “New Digital Divide.” Education technology is being adopted at faster and faster rates, and we believe that 1:1 programs have increased by at least 10 fold since the arrival of the iPad. The price point of Chromebooks has accelerated the adoption even more. Most schools, regardless of their location, have adopted a fair amount of technology. There is a stark contrast, however, between the ways technology is being used in some urban schools versus their suburban counterparts. The Rocketship model is pointed to as one extreme example, but I have seen lots of classrooms in urban public schools where students are expected to sit in front of a computer for most of their day working in a skill and drill remediation program. I have seen too many urban classrooms where technology becomes a digital prison of sorts, with students being forced into compliance. The lack of engagement is obvious, and the results I believe are disingenuous in the short-term, and potentially disastrous long-term. I have watched students navigate a couple of the popular software remediation solutions as they “game” the system in order to pass out of a section. The lack of foundational knowledge, pared with a lack of ability to think critically that may stem from a reliance on these sorts of programs will ensure that these students are ultimately left behind.

In stark contrast are the innovative and affluent suburban public schools where students are engaged in meaningful dialog, are building understand through investigation, and are using technology as a dynamic tool for creation and collaboration. In many of these environments administrators have not pushed for a complete digital conversion for fear of rocking the boat. Students continue to achieve at the high levels they always have, but are budget busting if they do not take advantage of potential cost savings and reallocate these dollars to paying for the new paradigm.

I believe that the success lies somewhere in between. Content standards divide into two main categories: skills and concepts. Skill development takes practice. Common wisdom states that we need to practice something for 10,000 hours to master it. We see the importance of practice to learning in lots of ways, from learning to dribble a basketball and accurately shoot, to having facility with math equations or foreign languages. Technology can be quite good at providing opportunities to develop skills in engaging ways though gamification. Some software programs are also getting pretty good at identifying deficits in a student’s foundational understanding, and adjusts the content to meet the individual student’s needs. This use of technology, in SAMR terms, is not transformational, but is more of a substitution with enhancements, but is nevertheless important to the complete learning process.

The transformational uses of technology may be more suited to the conceptual side of the content standards. In order for students to develop a meaningful understanding of a concept they need to ask questions, share their thoughts, investigate possibilities, and experiment with their ideas. Technology holds many advantages over traditional means by allowing students to communicate, collaborate and create their way to a deeper understanding of the concepts.

I think our legislators, and even many educators keep looking for a silver bullet. Well, it seems obvious to me that the path we have taken for the past 30 years is not working. I can tell you unequivocally, that technology on its own is also not the answer. I believe that understanding how human beings learn, and what motivates them to learn is the key. Once this understanding begins to guide our decisions about content, technology, and what instructional strategies will be most effect for the types of learning we want to occur, the better our outcomes will be, and the quicker we will improve our failing schools. Remember, if you treat a student like a criminal, he will act like a criminal. I believe if we start by building environments of mutual respect, and value the ideas and opinions of students in our urban schools, we could actually see a renaissance in learning beyond our wildest imagination. Let’s work together to unleash the potential of millions of American students, rather than locking them in a digital prison.

Michael Gielniak, Ph.D.