Friday, July 13, 2012

Finding a "cure " in the public school House

Finding a “cure” in the public school House!

I am a big fan of the recently-ended TV series House. With a masterful touch, actor Hugh Laurie played the brilliant, irascible, arrogant, prank-playing doctor who is known for sweeping in at the last minute with his diagnostic team to save a dying patient with a miracle cure to a complex condition. There is one thing for certain though the last thing you wanted to be on that show was the patient.

Why? Because it usually meant that at some point during your 60-minute hospital stay you had to convincingly and realistically pass prodigious quantities of blood through various orifices of your body. Hundreds of emerging young actors can now proudly add to their professional resumes “expert at hemorrhagic vomiting.”

The mystery ailment often was so arcane, elusive, or disguised that they had to treat symptoms without directly attacking the cause. Patients went through every type of test or procedure imaginable; sometimes with life threatening consequences. More than once after infusing an exotic pharmaceutical cocktail, conducting intricate open heart/brain surgery, or inducing a claustrophobic incident in the CT scanner the medical team found they had misdiagnosed the problem and had to bring out the paddles to revive the patient. Treating a moving target of symptoms had led them down a series of recurring blind alleys. It was a guessing game and the clock was ticking as the patient’s life hung in the balance. They threw solutions at problems hoping one would stick and voila a patient would be cured for another week.

The scripts from House transport readily to the modern era of school reform in the Public School House. Our patient (the public schools) shows dramatic and alarming signs of illness. Our financial temperature has dropped sharply, we’re amputating appendages to save essential core services, and using a plethora of triage techniques to keep public education from flat lining. The prognosis is dire and the condition is deteriorating rapidly. Is there a doctor in the house?

The harsh critics in our House say it’s too late; we’re riding a dead horse on life support. Privateers, born-again educationists, voucheristas, home schoolers, charter advocates, and politicians have started making our funeral arrangements while educational theorists, academics, think tanks, sage retired superintendents, private industry turn-around specialists, and canned reform-in-a-box software/ hardware/ human-ware marketers have gone Code Red in treating our symptoms.

These Public School EMTs (education management theorists) use tell-tale signs like dropout rates, Achievement Gaps, multilingualism, no common core, not enough electives, outdated teaching styles, lack of parental engagement in the learning process, too much or not enough technology, and a litany of other problems to pitch their solution for creating and maintaining a 21st Century learning environment for a demanding and complex student population. They diagnose a symptom with an absolute conviction that by treating it we can create overall health in the patient.

These reforms may work for a while. Personally, I think we can’t really produce a healthy, life sustaining public education system unless we cure the real cause for our malaise . . . Malnutrition. Each year Americans seem more willing to spend money on Starbuck’s than schoolhouses. The percent of personal income devoted to education has steadily decreased each year over the past few decades. As a society we’re starving our students to death. In some societies that would be considered child abuse. On a national scale it’s educational genocide.

In California, we have been systematically de-funding public education by billions of dollars. I’m all for ending obesity and maintaining a reasonably healthy diet, but in this case we’re forcing our schools into anorexia. California is trying to run 2013 schools with 2000 income levels. If the lifespan of a PreK-12 student is only 14 years, in effect, we have abandoned an entire generation on operating table. Schools can now only offer life support and keep the little patients as comfortable as possible.

Watch any TV ad for new miracle drugs designed to cure a host of Baby Boomer maladies and they all end the same way: a thirty second speed-talked disclaimer that warns if you take this drug it might cure the one symptom you have, but could cause dangerous side-effects (anything from fainting, convulsions and dry mouth to four-hour erections, heart attacks and strokes). Maybe we need to mandate that we cannot impose an educational reform or funding bill on our public schools without a similar disclaimer about their unintended consequences, dangers from overdose, and adverse side effects. On the label of the regulatory prescription bottle we should also caution that resisting tax increases for education can become an addiction that is hard shake.

As communicators we need to be truth tellers. Today, the Health of Public Education sucks. We need people to see that there will be deep and fatal consequences if we keep treating symptoms instead of getting to the root cause that will cure this patient. We have to stop expecting miracle cures and start investing our resources in systemic educational wellness. It will take a long-term commitment and a lot of patience if our patient is going to pull through. But time is of the essence or the patient may die. We need a Dr. House and his team in the Public School House STAT to accurately diagnose our condition and prescribed a cure that doesn’t kill us!

© Copyright 2012 by Thomas K. DeLapp, Communication Resources for Schools

Friday, March 2, 2012

Seeking Sanctuary in Public Schools

Through the ages, during times of trouble and anguish people under stress seek sanctuary. For America’s children today, that place is their public school. Yet headlines in the media once again remind us that this sanctuary is threatened. In the daily ritual of dropping kids off at school, families are laying at the altar of public education their most precious resource, their children; and along with that they invest their highest ideals, values, and hopes for a better future. They expect the great American public school system to serve as a sanctuary where the young are nourished, protected, and revered. They also expect their public schools to offer children sanctuary from an overwhelming and scary world.

What does “sanctuary” mean?  Sanc-tu-a-ry (noun)
A safe haven
. . . for people who are in trouble or being persecuted to find shelter and support
A protective refuge
. . . where an endangered species can be protected from predators or from being destroyed or abused
A “holy” place
. . . of reverence where our core beliefs, legacies, and values are preserved and where we lift ourselves up

The American public school must be adequately supported to fulfill its mandate under all three definitions.
In recent months, I’ve been working with school clients who are grappling with incidents of bullying, child abuse, teen suicide, campus violence, weapons on campus, sexual predators, homelessness, racism, family neglect borne from economic recession, and devastating cuts to vital services like counseling and interventions for troubled youth. All of these colliding at the same time made me appreciate even more that the public school really has become the last best hope for an entire generation of children.  The school is both their sanctuary in troubled times and their cathedral in which we empower them to reach their potential.

This raises two crucial public policy questions around which school communicators can play a vital role in building community dialogue and action:

§ Are we doing everything we can as a society and as educational leaders to empower our public schools to be the sacred refuge that shelters children from the perils and pressures of a complex and threatening world?

§ Since school is the last line of defense for so many at-risk kids why don’t people respect and treat our schools with the degree of reverence they deserve?

All surveys show that the public basically wants three simple things from their public schools: (a) Make them safe and secure learning environments for children, (b) demonstrate continuous improvement in academic achievement for all students, and (c) be cost-effective and efficient in the way we do that. In other words, “Keep kids safe, give them a good education, and spend my tax money wisely.”

Clearly, maintaining safe schools is the highest priority for parents and the public. It trumps academic performance and economic efficiency every time. But when it comes to policy makers and budget setters they have become fixated on increasing test scores, closing achievement gaps, and balancing budgets on dwindling resources.

We are working hard to maintain drug-free and gang-free schools. But in doing so, educators often get sidetracked from confronting the more subtle oppressors . . . a campus culture and climate that can be fraught with tribes, intolerance, indifference, isolation, racism, sexism, harassment, and bullying (by adults, coaches, and students). If school is to be a true sanctuary it must offer protection from all of these and not turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the signs that something is wrong in the life of a child.

But it costs money, talent, and time to build that type of protective bastion and nourishing culture. It also takes the moral and political will from everyone in the community (parents, students, staff, voters, and community) to make eradicating these subtle oppressors a priority in both word and deed.

The heartfelt thoughts of my good friend and colleague Rick Kaufman always resonate with me as I confront the issue of campus safety. I served on Rick’s communication response team during the tragedy at Columbine High School over a decade ago.  In the wake of the shooting on February 26, 2012 at Chardon High School in Ohio, Rick’s words serve as a poignant and eloquent reminder of how we must stay vigilant to the mental and emotional health of all students:

“We must once again resurrect lost hope, and tend to the emotional and physical scars left in the wake of another school shooting. We will hear the pundits blame the bullies, the parents, the schools (it's always the school's fault), the loss of religion and faith, and the state of the world. Should it not be enough that we find a way to transform violence? I'm afraid the painful images of another ‘Columbine’ will visit us again all too soon.”

Bullying is the cause célèbre these days as we search for answers and struggle to build a supportive school environment. Whether it’s a suicide or a school shooting, people should resist applying sound bite solutions to complex situations. Bullying shouldn’t be used as a knee-jerk explanation or catch-all motive for the sadness and isolation that many children feel.  Adults need to learn to listen to the voices of children. They need to pick up the unspoken cues.

More importantly, adults need to model the behaviors they want children to emulate. When political discourse has descended into school yard name-calling is it any wonder that bullying and name-calling happen in our schoolyards? Have we sunk so far that it is impossible to disagree without being disagreeable?

For example, when a self-absorbed close-minded shock jock like Rush Limbaugh can get away with calling a college student a “slut” and “prostitute” for speaking her mind before a Congressional committee simply because he disagrees with her views, what message does that send to children? When someone in a position of power (in this case multi-megawatts in 250+ media markets) uses that position to ridicule and intimidate someone who is different he is demonstrating the crassest form of bullying.

There is no room for bullying in our sanctuary called school. Likewise, there should be no place in a civilized society for the kind of bombast, bias, and bullying displayed by Limbaugh. Bullying behavior by adults in any forum should not be glorified, discounted or accepted.

A quality education for every child is an article of faith and a core belief in our country that deserves to be practiced with reverence and respect in the “sanctuary” called the public school. To that end, public education can become a “Bully Pulpit” to stand up for civility, tolerance, integrity, and open communication about the needs and problems facing our children and our society.

That’s where school communicators can do their best work: courageously convening the conversation about how we should treat each other. Maybe if we can create an environment of tolerance and respect in schools, adults can start learning from children how to play well with others.

Can I get an “Amen” to that!

© Copyright 2012 by Thomas K. DeLapp

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Stop Giving Public Education the “Business”

Should we run our schools like a business? Many business leaders and free market privateers are “all up in our business” asking schools to be more business-like to achieve results. But I wonder if a company CEO actually could lead the average public school district any better? I doubt it. There are some powerful differences that might make the average titan of industry fail as an educational CEO. Here are twenty ways that running a school district is a lot harder than running a business:

1.     No Investment Capital
Capitalism depends on capital. Return on Investment (ROI) means you spend enough money first and then see if it pays off. Investment yields return. In education, our incentive programs are the complete opposite Investment on Return. We mandate that schools achieve certain rates of improvement and then we promise to give them more money. As a superintendent, the corporate CEO would have to use promised incentives instead of concrete investments to get results. But chronic underfunding of education (NCLB for example) has shifted ROI to IOR which actually means IOU to an educator. “Show me the money!” isn’t the quid pro quo in public education that it is in the private sector. In fact, our only incentive is to avoid the sanctions. Corporate leaders throw money at their problems. Educators don’t have that option and, in fact, society has been systematically de-investing in its public schools as a percent of personal income or GDP.

2.     Educators Can’t Niche Market
Businesses succeed when they find their market niche and focus all of their energies on perfecting their products or services in that market. The education marketplace is demanding, comprehensive, and diverse. The push-me-pull-you between state and federal standard-setters, parental demand, and what districts can actually provide as a well-rounded education causes tremendous tension. Science, the Arts, Social Studies, History, PE, Health Education, and Career Tech take a back seat as we are judged primarily on English and Math proficiency. Yet the consumer base still demands services in all subjects. Taco Bell doesn’t serve pizza, and Pizza Hut doesn’t serve filet mignon. However, our menu needs to be all encompassing or our customers get upset. They want mass personalized public education a private tutorial on a public school dollar.

3.     The Customer Isn’t Always Right
There’s a false axiom in business that “the customer is always right.” That simply isn’t true. Sure a business wants customer satisfaction, but if a business can’t satisfy the customer or its customer is too obnoxious or demanding the business cuts them loose. They give them a refund check and show them the door. Companies can pick and choose their customers and abandon the difficult “unprofitable” ones. Public education has to serve everyone. We don’t have a refund check to give them and if we tell them to leave they come back with a lawyer. Business leaders can be a little disingenuous when they advocate that parental choice is the answer to education’s ills. For a corporate CEO, that model would only work if they could also choose their parents and students. Educators can’t and won’t do that. We take them all whether they are tough to serve or not.

4.     Simultaneous Over-Regulation and De-Regulation
Many business leaders complain they are forced to move out of state or off shore to survive because of government over regulation. At least they have the option to leave. Public schools labor under a comprehensive, contradictory and complex set of regulations. The California Education Code contains over 20 million words. For example, myriad regulations and exacting standards mean the only facilities more difficult to build than schools are hospitals or power plants.  Of course, you’re a lot safer in a public school classroom during an earthquake than you are under a freeway overpass, in a corporate office building, or in a Wal-Mart. Some construction firms won’t work on schools because of all the delays and hoops they have to jump through.

The Chamber of Commerce annually issues a list of “job killer” bills pending before the Legislature. Maybe educators should do the same.  The Ed Code and the state budget come to mind since they certainly have been a “job killer” for educational personnel. Business CEOs aren’t used to having government regulators second-guess their business decisions; school superintendents are.

At the same time, quick-fix politicians and born-again educationists think if we infuse competition into the public schools it will force improvements. Over-regulating and under-funding the public schools as you force them to compete with charters, private schools, vouchers, parental choice, and online classrooms is a formula for failure and creates the unlevel playing field that private sector CEOs abhor. Corporations complain loudly to Congress when we don’t subsidize American companies and farmers struggling to fend off foreign competition. How is education any different?

5.     Revolving Door Leadership
One of the biggest differences between private and public sector leadership is that, in business, management stays the same while the workforce is constantly rotating out. In public schools our workforce stays entrenched (tenure and ineffective evaluation systems) while our management structure is constantly churning. The average shelf-life of a California school superintendent is less than three years. Many don’t even finish the term of their first contract or strategic plan. Transitory leadership can kill a business because it lacks consistency, confidence, and coordination. Apple Computer had revolving door leadership that almost drove it under until they re-hired Steve Jobs and regained stability. The same holds true for public education. We need leadership stability and continuity for a change. At this writing, nearly two-thirds of the students in California are being educated in systems led by superintendents who have been on that job less than three years. Now, this is a lot better than the private sector where 90% of the businesses that incorporate go bankrupt within the first two years. Private sector CEOs can walk away from failure; educators cannot not the state won’t let them.

6.     Lack of Control over the Bottom Line
The bottom line is crucial for a business CEO as they balance income and expenses to yield a profit. To do that the corporate leader must be able to control costs and prices. By contrast, the education leader only controls half the equation. In California, school districts receive most of their funding from the state so superintendents have very little influence on the revenue side of the ledger. They spend their time poring over expenses to glean every ounce of productivity so they can stay in balance. And, state law requires them to demonstrate solvency for at least three years even when their funding level is highly unpredictable. We are balancing 2012 budgets on 2000 levels of income. Ninety percent of our budget is spent on people so we have very little wiggle room to avoid layoffs and service reductions to stay in balance. For the past five years we have been doing Donner Party Budgeting in California as we cannibalize our workforce to stay afloat. Imposing a price hike to maintain quality services, staffing and “products” is not an option for a superintendent, but it is for a corporate CEO.

7.     Support for Employee Training and Renewal
In its prime, one-third of the IBM workforce was in some form of management, sales, or technical training. And it was done on the company’s dime. Contrast that approach to public schools where we are lucky to have one day at the start of school to get classrooms and work areas ready for the next term.  Professional development is a dying commitment in most school districts because of budget cuts. If our employees are to remain current in their fields, we ask them to pay for it themselves on their own time after the school year is done. Great businesses invest in their own employees, public schools can’t afford to any more.

8.     Marketing, Communications and PR on the Cheap
Most businesses spend a lot of money on Marketing, Communications, and Corporate Relations. Not including the cost of sales, it can range up to 30% of a firm’s operating expenses, with an average of about 7-10%.  In public education we grudgingly spend about 1% of district resources on school communication, community outreach, civic engagement, and public/media relations. Getting your message out to consumers is stock and trade for a corporate CEO. It’s a luxury for a school superintendent. Yet the number one reason a superintendent is hired, fired or gets a better job is their ability to communicate with consumers, school boards, employees, and stakeholders. Corporate CEOs, like educational leaders, would find it hard to survive with the paltry amount we spend to get our message out.

9.     Our Customers are Co-Producers
In business, the customer is the recipient of a product or service. In education, our customers (students and parents) are actually co-producers of our product called “learning.” Imagine if Ford Motor Company’s success depended on a car buyer helping on the assembly line and then on how well they drove and maintained their car over time? Each driver would define Ford’s product based on their own interaction with it. In public education, our Product is Learning and our Profit is Performance. Our customer’s involvement in making our product is integral to our profit margin in a way that would confound most corporate CEOs.

10.  Everyone’s an Expert on What We Do
Most people think they know how schools should operate because they went to one. In most industries the consumer accepts a company’s perceived expertise. We don’t tell our dentist how to fill a cavity, the CPA how to prepare our taxes, or the surgeon how to remove the tumor. If we are unhappy with the quality or value of that transaction we vote with our feet and choose someone else. In education, our customers feel entitled and knowledgeable enough to tell us how to run our business. Just because you were a student doesn’t mean you can be a teacher or administrator.

11.  Schools are Change Resistant
Businesses can change and transform themselves at will. “My way or the highway” is the ultimate hammer CEOs can use to impose change and compel adherence to new directions. Because of tenure and civil service, superintendents need to “sell” their staff into accepting change as a good thing. In a corporate environment, you will never hear, “That won’t work; I’m not going to change.” An ingrained workforce would drive the private sector CEO nuts! They would have to be much more adept at building coalitions, alliances and teams because they could not compel allegiance. It’s pretty easy to be a company team builder when you have the power to trade players at will.

12.  Unions Hold a Trump Card
Only about 10% of the American workforce is unionized anymore. Most unions are in the public sector; primarily education. Companies bargain with unions over pay and benefits and the occasional agreement around hours of employment and vacation/leave policies. Their working conditions are just that, working conditions. They don’t negotiate over what their product or service should be. In public education our working conditions are actually our teaching and learning conditions and over time union contracts have begun to define our educational product. Contracts constrain management rights to call meetings, enforce collaboration among teachers, curriculum and textbook adoption processes, school governance and advisory systems, hiring processes, etc. Learning is a process and when the union contract limits the engagement of adults in that process it has a huge impact on our product.

13.  Shared Decision-Making Isn’t Just Lip Service
Most good businesses encourage employee involvement in setting policies and practices that will improve company profitability and performance. It didn’t always operate that way, and in many cases is still doesn't. In business, shared decision making was, “I make the decisions and share them with you.” By contrast, public education has a rich tradition of collaboration and collegiality. We have scores of advisory mechanisms for people to provide input, criticism, and feedback to leaders. Some of those are mandated and some are voluntary. In one communication audit for a moderate sized school district I discovered that the superintendent had 17 advisory bodies reporting to her. Even she didn’t realize that. Processing decisions is anathema to most private sector leaders who want the flexibility to take advantage of targets of opportunity, changing market conditions, and innovations. Shared decision making in public education almost assures that we will not be nimble enough for most corporate CEOs.

14.  Schools are Under-Led
Public schools keep getting accused of having a “Bureaucratic Blob.” Myths, stereotypes and lies about how much money is “wasted” on overhead and administration abound, usually spread by private sector leaders. Yet if you examine the facts, public education has a leaner management structure than almost any other business.  I’ve reviewed Bureau of Labor Statistics figures comparing the number of managers/supervisors to rank and file employees by industry and the data are conclusive. Business has almost twice as much overhead management as public schools. We average about one administrator (including principals) for every 30 employees. Other industries like communications, retailing, media, manufacturing, transportation, construction, etc. have ratios of 1:12 or less. I would suggest that we need more, not less administrators and specialists to lead us forward as an industry. The corporate CEO is used to delegating to a multi-tiered staff structure. The superintendent doesn’t have that support system.

15.  Public Schools Must Be Transparent
We must do the public’s business in public and offer accessibility and transparency in the process. Each financial transaction, agenda item, policy change, and email is potentially subject to a Public Records Act request. This alone would cause most corporate CEOs to cringe. Imagine if stockholders, competitors, and customers could access every email, document and record kept by your company? The cloak of corporate secrecy just doesn’t wear well in the public schools.

16.  Society Drops It’s Problems on Our Doorstep Every Day
I can’t think of any other industry that has to contend with so many challenges from its customers. Kids come to school hungry; we feed them breakfast and lunch. Kids can’t get to our place of business; we give them a bus ride. Kids are abused, neglected, and homeless; we take them in and nurture them. We inoculate them from disease, and provide health care when they’re sick and hurt. In a society filled with incivility, double-standards, and double-talk, we have to teach them tolerance, manners, work ethics, and countless other basic life skills. If they are obese we make them exercise. If they have learning disabilities, psychological problems, or substance abusing parents we have to provide them a haven and hope.  Could the CEO of a retail department store chain even comprehend addressing the magnitude to those challenges for every customer who came in just to buy a pair of jeans?

17.  Our Product is on the Production Line for 13 years
The quarterly balance sheet is the yardstick for a business leader. For an educator, our success is measured in decades. Our first goal is to get all students to graduate and our ultimate end product is a well-educated young adult with the skills and temperament to succeed in college, a career, and citizenship. Educational leaders need to be patient while maintaining a healthy impatience with status quo performance. As we invest so much time in each child’s future, it might be hard for a private sector CEO to stay the course for over a decade when they have come from a “fiscal year” frame of mind.

18.  Education is Dominated by Isolated Generalists
Businesses tend to run on specialists working in their own silos production lines, departments, product teams, etc. Schools have a lot of generalists, but they also work in silos. We still operate in a “sage on the stage” environment where the teacher’s classroom is his or her domain. Collaboration is not a condition of their work product or craft; it is something we have to induce them to participate in. Sadly, we also expect a teacher to come into the profession with all of the classroom management, content expertise, interpersonal techniques, and workplace savvy to handle any classroom situation or subject. That’s just unrealistic and unfair. Schools can’t afford meaningful in-depth orientation, induction, and mentoring programs to bring these generalists up to speed quickly. We push them into the pool and make them learn to swim in their own lane while the crowd at the swim meet is yelling for them to go faster.

19.  Pay for Performance vs. Pay for Presence
Two frustrating concepts for business leaders is that in public education we can’t pay good teachers more money than bad teachers and that we have such trouble identifying and removing poorly performing teachers once they reach tenure. Private sector CEOs achieve results by offering incentives when a person’s performance contributes more to the bottom line. It’s a form of profit sharing, and it works. In a variety of forms, reformers have been trying to ingrain the concept of pay for performance into public education. Good concept, but difficult to realize since the devil is in the details. Do we pay more for test scores, subjective evaluations, graduation rates, etc?  Most corporate CEOs would find our ambiguity about what makes for exceptional performance difficult to administer. Superintendents certainly do.

20.  Schools Are An Old-Fashion Institution
Public schools are a tremendous societal tradition that has endured over the ages. We drive by the old school with fond memories. Our grandchildren are taught in the same classroom we were in as a kid. And that is the problem. Sadly, unlike most businesses we’re still working in the same facilities as we did 50 years ago. We have patched them up and tried to renovate their infrastructure, but our education facilities are definitely old school. Corporations pride themselves on state-of-the-art technology and modern manufacturing plants. Trying to deliver a world class education in a second rate learning environment would certainly pose a huge impediment to a corporate innovator who wanted to change the public schools.

Some final thoughts . . .

Public schools can certainly be more business-like, but to say that a business model is the solution doesn’t wash. I say we ask businesses to run like schools for a year and see how they like it!

The security of our nation depends heavily on developing a highly-educated population that is smart enough to see past prejudice and complacency to create a better future. Public education is still the cornerstone of our democracy, our national security, and our economic future. In 2009, we were all scared into supporting a massive government bailout of the insurance, investment banking and home mortgage industries. They were too big to fail we were told; the negative consequences would be too devastating and immediate.

I suggest that our public school system is hovering at the same precipice and we are also too big to let fail. Instead of condemning public education, corporate leaders should become true partners to help restore the education industry to its former place of world prominence. Instead of mindlessly signing an anti-tax pledge, they should be signing on to help public schools with a massive investment of badly needed venture capital. The American auto industry is surging back because we had the public and corporate will to make it so. We put our money where our mouth was as a nation. Will we be able to say the same for public schools so that an education “Made in America” is once again the standard for the world?


"In fact, to every young person listening tonight who's contemplating their career choice: If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child - become a teacher. Your country needs you." From President Obama’s State of the Union Speech

© Copyright 2012 by Thomas K. DeLapp, President, Communication Resources for Schools

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Seeing the Brilliance in Children

I have come to realize that school administrators and teachers are actually diamond cutters. Recently, in an academy workshop for aspiring superintendents, I posed my usual question as we explored marketing, branding, and communication concepts: “Why should I enroll my child in your schools?” One answer I got back was unexpected, and absolutely brilliant.

Most administrators usually give me standard statements about safety, rigor, test scores, accountability, and quality teaching. However, one very dedicated and creative principal from San Francisco USD simply said, “We believe all of our students are brilliant!”

As I mulled this over you could almost see a cartoon light bulb go off over my head. He was creating a culture in his school focused on the amazing concept that his students shine with inner star-like qualities while at the same time being capable of achieving to high levels. He explained that his job as a leader was to bring out both facets of brilliance in every child. I clearly saw that he was an educational diamond cutter. What a terrific brand for his school. Absolutely brilliant!

The word “diamond” comes from the Ancient Greek word for “unbreakable.” They say diamonds are forever; they last because they are forged from carbon placed under tremendous pressure deep in the Earth. From the most extraordinary conditions and circumstances one of the strongest elements on the planet is produced.

There is no doubt that our children are growing up in perilous times in a world filled with pressure, uncertainty, and a host of daunting problems. Since we can now simulate the diamond-making process in the laboratory, shouldn’t we be able to do the same in America’s classrooms?  Each day, our “little lumps of coal” and the educators that serve them are put to the test under tremendous pressure. If we can transform students into diamonds then their skills will last a lifetime. We will make them “unbreakable” so they can pass on their brilliance to make a better society for generations to come.

We judge the quality of a diamond by its four C’s. While high grades of color, clarity, and carat weight contribute to a diamond's appeal, it's the cut that determines the symmetry of the stone's facets, its overall proportions, and its ability to reflect light. An expertly cut diamond will achieve high levels of brilliance, sparkle, and durability. Even if a diamond is graded well in other areas, a poor cut can result in a dull, muted effect. The “cut” is what adds value to an otherwise lifeless piece of crystal. Our “cut” in public education is quality teaching and quality leading.

Do the educators and leaders in your schools practice and perfect their craft to make sure that each facet of a student’s education is flawless? As they create the many faces of a child’s education are they bringing out the inner fire and innate brilliance that every child brings to school each day?

We know that one slip by the cutter can ruin a diamond. It takes skill, patience, and experience to unlock the inner brilliance in a gemstone so it reflects, refracts and disperses illuminating light with a dazzling sparkle. Teaching, like diamond cutting, is a work of art. When done well, it creates timeless beauty. As communicators our privilege is to shine the light so the diamonds (even in the rough sometimes) can show their brilliance for everyone to see, admire and value.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Zach's True Test of Character

Zach got his haircut the other day, and the world is a better place for it.

In public education we have come to appreciate that the culture in our schools contributes to a positive learning experience almost as much as the quality of instruction. In recent years we have devoted considerable attention to building character in children with moral precepts like being trustworthy, dependable, and respectful as we encourage them to make good ethical choices about their behavior. But character is only an abstract concept unless it is tested. Believing you have character is easy when, well, it’s convenient. Proving you actually have character can only happen when you have to take responsibility for your actions and endure the implications and repercussions of your decision.

An excellent case in point is my great nephew Zachary Williamson. Zach is pretty amazing. He has all of the boundless energy and enthusiasm of any ten year old boy. Each day for him is an expedition into his own fascinating world of exploration full of Legos, monster trucks, Cub Scouts, World Wrestling Federation, class projects, inventions, sports, and superheroes. Like all young boys he is at times a confusing and confounding jumble of anachronisms, ambitions, and antics. As the complexity of the world opens up to him he can be as erratic as a butterfly as he flits from one passionate endeavor to another. Zach is a character all right; just being around him makes you smile. But it isn’t that Zach is a character, it’s that he demonstrates character at such an early age that is truly remarkable.

When he was just eight years old, Zach made a decision to grow his hair out long and eventually donate it to Locks of Love, the organization that supplies wigs to children dealing with cancer and the devastating effects of chemotherapy. Each lock had to be at least ten inches long which meant that this was not going to be a simple act of charity like dropping a coin into a basket or spending a day cleaning up the shoulder of a highway. Zach’s decision was a personal commitment that was going to be ongoing. It was an act of compassion for a person he would never know. Zach’s test of character was definitely not going to be easy, and along the way he would have to resist the temptation to abandon his decision when it became inconvenient, uncomfortable, or embarrassing. This was his decision alone and in the ensuing two years Zach passed the test of character with flying colors. He drew comfort, encouragement, and support from his parents, sisters and friends who helped him find true north on his moral compass as the days turned into months and years.

As Zach began to grow his hair, he started to get teased at school, but he endured. After the first year, he was frequently mistaken for a girl, but he endured. His principal finally told the student body about Zach’s quest to grow his hair long enough to donate and the teasing stopped. When he changed to a new school, he wore a T-shirt proclaiming, “I’m a Dude! Growing it for Locks of Love” to pre-empt the taunts. The toughest challenges came when he was out in public as insensitive or unthinking adults told him to get out of the Men’s Restroom or called him “Sweetie.” But Zach endured. When the going got tough, Zach stayed true to his decision and stood his ground with the inner strength of a Spartan. A model of courage and commitment that many adults could not have mustered.

One side benefit of his flowing locks was that he was able to pull off a pretty convincing look at Halloween as the superhero Thor. Most little boys fantasize about their favorite super power: being able to fly, invisibility, or super strength. My little superhero Zach found his super power . . . inside of himself. His super power is his character with a heavy dose of compassion, conviction and courage. I can’t wait to see how he uses these super powers on his continuing journey to manhood.

On the day he got his haircut, Zach triumphantly proclaimed, “I feel like a boy again.” Not so my little superhero, you should feel like a man because you have given us a powerful reality check on the true test of character.