A New Metric for High School Success

This morning, I was drawn to a Michigan news report that East Lansing and Okemos High Schools are among the "top ten" in the state, according to U.S. News & World Report rankings. Curious, I wondered how these rankings were determined.

According to their website, U.S. News selected schools for their list using a three step process (emphasis added):

The first two steps ensured that the schools serve all of their students well, using performance on state proficiency tests as the benchmarks. For those schools that made it past the first two steps, a third step assessed the degree to which schools prepare students for college-level work.

Essentially, they are ranking schools by:

  1. First, comparing each school's standardized assessment scores in math and reading to state averages (with an unspecified nod to schools with higher levels of economically disadvantaged students).
  2. Then, they compare each school's standardized assessment scores in math and reading for black, Hispanic, and low-income students to state averages for the same groups.
  3. Of the schools that perform better than state averages in both of the areas specified above, U.S. News ranks them "using Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate test data" as the benchmark for college-readiness.

    This third step measured which schools produced the best cllege-level achievement for the highest percentages of their students. This was done by computing a "college readiness index" (CRI) based on the school's AP or IB participation rate (the number of 12th-grade students in the 2010-2011 academic year who took at least one AP or IB test before or during their senior year, divided by the number of 12th-graders) and how well the students did on those tests.

My district is in its first of a three-year initiative to transform our traditional high school into an Early College. From 2007 through 2010, 74% of our students chose to attend a 2- or 4- year postsecondary institution. Of that group, only 44% successfully completed their first year; thirty percent have yet to earn their first 24 credits. We think we can improve upon this and are working with the New Tech Network and the state of Michigan to re-imagine everything we do to get there. Our goal for the class of 2016 and beyond is a first-year postsecondary success rate of at least eighty percent.

To achieve this goal, we will decrease the number Advanced Placement courses we offer, and we have no plans to start an International Baccalaureate program. In fact, we may stop offering any advanced courses at our high school altogether.

We're serious.

Our vision of a future in which all students are prepared for postsecondary education involves:

  1. letting any student who is prepared to go to college dual enroll as early as their junior year of high school.
  2. increasing our focus on the students who are not yet prepared through changes in curriculum, instruction, and interventions.
  3. offering all students the opportunity to "stick with us" for a fifth year so we can offer support and funding for their first year of college.

As students in our Early College, all young adults in our community have an opportunity to earn up to an associates degree from our area community college after five years of high school. The credits earned toward this degree (or non-degree program) are fully transferrable, earned on the college campus (we plan offer shuttle service to and from our building), and are completely free to the student. Students who elect to "stick around" for that fifth year can attend all classes at the community college and never have to step foot back into the high school if they don't want to.

Our early estimate, based on data collected from the class of 2016 during their freshmen year, is that 60-70% of our students will opt to let us pay for their first year of college. Approximately 20%-30% tell us that they currently want to leave immediately after high school to attend a 4-year university. Around 10% of our students have alternative plans involving the military, a trade, or an alternative career.

We are in talks with other institutions of postsecondary education interested in partnering to offer a wider range of opportunities to our diverse student body. For us and our community, success is not defined only by college entrance and success.

Let's assume that my teachers and I are able to achieve our goal and, in fact, over 80% of our students complete their first year of postsecondary education successfully. Let's assume that this success occurs evenly amongst our diverse population.

I am sure the growth from 44% to 80% would be noted by someone. The community and the school would all be pleased and as proud of our young people as ever. The Board of Education might recognize our efforts. The news might even pick up on the story of our success.

But ….

Due of the narrowness of criteria used by organizations like U.S. News to define college readiness for their rankings, we will be listed below (far below) the larger schools in our state that offer Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses.

In the end, I don't care to make it onto these lists; that's not my point. Rather, my hope is that by telling my school's story, and by sharing the methods behind how these lists are compiled, we might start a conversation about the metrics being used to evaluate the success of our schools.

After all, should schools be assessed by the number of students whom are successful at scoring well on complex tests? Or, should they be assessed by the number of students whom are successful at actually completing their postsecondary goals?

Isn't it time that we find a new metric for high school success?

Teaching Accountabilty

Last month, at a staff meeting led by Matt Thompson, my team came to the conclusion that we need to close the year focused on accountability.

Here's the gist of the conversation that brought us to this conclusion:

If we are to see our vision of "graduating all students prepared for success in life, college, and career," then we had better do some serious work on accountability.

It was an honest moment of clarity for my group around the challenges that we think we face:

  • Some of our students do not hold themselves accountable for their actions. From this group, we hear a lot of excuses and see the slowest growth.
  • Most of our students do not hold others accountable for agreed upon responsibilities. When group norms break down, they simply break down.
  • We adults struggle with the exact same challenges.

It was the realization of that last bullet that hurt the most for me. As the school leader, I feel responsible for the systems of accountability that my staff and students work within. If our systems of accountability are failing, shouldn't I be held accountable for that failure?

The next day, I had a routine meeting with our "culture committee" to talk about our goals for next year. At the top of the agenda was to discuss how we would use a school-wide Advisory to improve the culture of our school. Our staff just recently approved reallocating some non-instructional time in our schedule to Advisory. We have approximately 25 minutes to work with every day in every grade.

The driving question for this committee has been "How do we structure a school-wide Advisory program that strengthens school culture without adding additional prep time for staff?"

At the start of the meeting, I brought up this accountability issue we've been experiencing and the group started talking about the evaluation system we use as adults as a possible pathway for teaching accountability to students. Someone suggested that we have students write SMART goals in advisory. Teachers could help students develop action plans and could use Advisory as time for students to collaborate on and share their goals. This, it was argued would provide ample opportunity to teach accountability.

Out of this discussion came the following three goals for our advisory program next year:

  1. All students and staff will create one SMART goal around the topic of personal accountability by the end of the first week of school and accomplish it by the end of April of that year.
  2. Groups of all students and staff will create one SMART goal around the topic of accountability to the school community by the end of the first week of school and accomplish it by the end of April of that year.
  3. Groups of all students and staff will create one SMART goal around the topic of accountability to the broader community outside of school by the end of the first week of school and accomplish it by the end of April of that year.

Our plan is to structure our Advisory around these yearlong goals, tackling them each on a different day of the week. For example, we might schedule our advisories like this:

  • Tuesday: Personal Growth Day – Every learner would spend 25 minutes working on and reflecting upon their personal SMART goal. Is their goal specific enough? How is it measuring up? Are they following their action plans? Will they complete their goal on time? On Tuesdays, teachers (as advisors) would work with students to help guide their goals while also collecting data on what additional supports are needed.
  • Wednesday: School Growth Day - Every Advisory would spend 25 minutes working on and reflecting upon their school SMART goal. What specific aspect of our school can each Advisory directly affect? What action steps can each individual in the group take to ensure the goal is met in the time specified. On Wednesdays, teachers facilitate group work toward the achievement of their Advisory's goal.
  • Thursday: Community Growth Day - Every Advisory (or groups of Advisories) will spend 25 minutes working on and reflecting upon their community SMART goal. What specific aspect of our community (or the world)) can people in our school directly affect. What action steps can we all take to ensure the goal is met? Etc.

While Mondays and Fridays have yet to be planned, we're thinking that Mondays need to be about making connections - whether through conversations, presenters from outside the school, or through activities - we want to dedicate time to relationships.

Fridays need to be about celebrations. We want to celebrate when individuals and groups meet their goals. We want to celebrate when great things happen. And, we want to just celebrate being together.

A larger goal, from my point of view, is to engage my staff and students in the same type of work from the top to the bottom. I want to lead a school of action: one where students and staff all set goals, create action plans, and use data to assess success and next steps. I want to be there when we celebrate individuals and groups achieving their goals. I also want to be there to support individuals and groups when their outcomes fall short of their goals.

If the result of this work is nothing more than rooms full of messy conversations about the challenges of meeting personal and group expectations, then I think we'll be successful. That will be many rooms full of messy conversations about accountability more than we have now.

Bammy Nomination

I'm pleased to announce that I have recently been nominated for a Bammy Award!

Presented by the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences International, the Bammy award is a cross-discipline award recognizing the contributions of educators from across the education field.

I was nominated by the one and only Theresa Shafer, Online Community Manager for the New Tech Network. It is an honor that she would consider me for this award. I feel humbled just to be recognized alongside other school leaders nomininated such as Eric Sheninger and Chris Lehmann. Thank you, Theresa!

Round 1 of the selection process is a screening of "public influence and popularity within the education community." To vote for me, simply go to my nomination page, register, and cast a vote! Your ratings and comments will be displayed publicly for all the world to see.

The nominees with the most votes in a category automatically receive the Educator's Voice Awards and become eligible for consideration by the Academy for the Bammy Award in their category. The open nomination and voting for the Educator's Voice Awards allows for the discovery of new people, programs and organizations who are making a difference in education but may be below the radar screen of the education community.

I think I qualify as just below that radar!

If you have ever worked with me and have nice things to say about that, please take a moment to cast your vote. If nothing else, your kind words mean a lot and I appreciate your time!

Thank you!

Creating College & Career Readiness

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to start a new high school designed to prepare all learners for college and career. My first task: to define what "being prepared for college and career" actually means.

With a clean slate and support from the New Tech Network, a team of teachers and I set out to reduce college and career readiness down to what we believed were five essential skills that all graduates should have before leaving high school. Then, we created rubrics for each skill and agreed to measuring them all school-wide.

We thought we were on fire.

This past year, I've had the opportunity to do the same thing with a second group of teachers engaged in full-school reform. While the exact skills this second group identified were unique, the essential outcomes were not.

Having gone through this process twice now, I have some reflections and next steps I think are worth sharing. If you're part of the New Tech Network, what follows are my thoughts on developing school-wide learning outcomes in two separate communities with different design models. If you're not in the network, the reflections below will still be helpful assuming the additional burden of deciding how to measure your outcomes school-wide.

Let's all agree that we'd like to graduate students who are productive, life-long learners who collaborate locally and globally to communicate critical change in their world.

While I find great value in teams working together to define and thereby "own" their particular set of lofty outcomes, I sometimes wonder if we're all unnecessarily working on something that's already been done. Let's stop re-inventing the wheel.

Take the first step and ask your team to draft their vision for a college and career ready graduate. The shared experience here will pay off, but don't get carried away. Rely heavily on the work of others and steal everything that fits your vision. Otherwise, you're just going to create what's already been created several times before.

After all, this is only step zero on the long path to ensuring these outcomes actually make it into your school curriculum.

Start with the end in mind, but don't forget to begin.

Once your team has defined their set of outcomes and have agreed to measure them school-wide, it's logical (and necessary) to create rubrics that define how each outcome will be measured. Is "collaboration" on your list? If so, what does your ideal collaborator look like? What does a poor collaborator look like? Can collaboration be measured that simply or will there need to be sub-skills or outcomes? If you skip this step or stop here, you'll have little more than a fancy statement on your website.

For this, I recommend dividing the outcomes amongst individuals or pairs of individuals to research existing rubrics (they're out there). Don't even dream of writing these outcome rubrics as a large group. The conversations you'll have about wording alone will kill your momentum and waste time.

Provide a template. If your team isn't already trained in rubric-writing, do that first. You want to have already decided whether to use a 2, 3, 4, or 10 column rubric, how many points (if set) each column will be worth, and what each column should be called. In short, ask yourself how you'd like your team's time to be used: discussing rubric formats or drafting outcomes?

Designate two individuals, preferably an idealist (probably you) and a wordsmith, to rewrite each team's outcome rubric in a single voice. The goal is to ensure a consistent language and format throughout each outcome rubric.

While rewriting, think critically about whether the criteria measured will actually assess whether the outcome has been reached. If the assessment seems insufficient, send it back to the drafter(s) with feedback for revision. Whatever you do, don't settle for incomplete or poorly written rubrics.

Having school-wide outcomes & rubrics is great, but it's not enough.

The work of creating college and career ready graduates only begins with the creation of school-wide outcomes and rubrics. Armed only with these two tools, you'll end up with a whole lot of assessment of skills that were never explicitly taught.

This is the equivalent of a college professor who provides study guides yet does't teach the class any of the content that will be on the test. It feels unfair and it doesn't lead students in any particular direction.

Particularly skilled students will figure things out on their own; students who struggle will fail.

To ensure that all students graduate with the knowledge and skills needed for success after high school, it's important for teams to scaffold the learning of school-wide outcomes across time and contexts. Skills that we believe students need to be successful must be viewed as a curriculum to be aligned horizontally and vertically throughout the school.

Here's an example: three weeks ago, I started meeting with a group of teachers from various subjects and levels in my high school. We call this group the "College and Career Readiness Curriuclum Committee (CCRCC)". It's not pretty or easy to say, but it's an important step toward the goals we're trying to accomplish.

Using Conley's 2010 book College and Career Ready and our previously created school-wide learning outcomes as a foundation, we're taking the next step of determining when and where our outcomes should be taught.

For example, if we believe that metacognition is an important lifeskill that young adults should master, where might be the best place to have students start journalling? Should this be the focus of just one class or all classes? Across all grades or just the first year? If all grades, then should our expectations be lower in earlier years and increase over time?

These are all great questions that must be answered as part of the conversation that creating a curriculum will generate.

Getting from outcomes to a curriculum is a big step, but there's one last step.

Even with outcomes, rubrics, and a curriculum, you still need a plan for establishing and sharing best practices on how they will be taught. For example, we all want our learners to graduate with a repertoire or note-taking methods and to apply them appropriately in different learning contexts.

Let's say that your team determines that students should learn to outline first. Once outlining is mastered, perhaps they learn mind-mapping, and then onto Cornell. Can you be certain that your entire staff is on the same page about how to teach outlining to reasonably assure that all students will have mastered outlining before moving onto mind-mapping? What does research say is the most effective method of outlining?

Without explicitly sharing the best known instructional practices for teaching your college and career readiness curriculum, your school-wide outcomes will only be met haphazardly and your vision will be tougher to reach.

What I've done here is not exactly unique. Anyone engaged in designing courses around content standards have followed similar steps. That's the point. If your goal is for students to be successful in college and career, then the same care and intentionality given to content planning should be given to the scaffolding of skills.

Help Wanted

I'm looking for someone to join me in leading a team of teachers on the sometimes insane but always fulfilling adventure of progressive school reform.

My district in its first year of a four year initiative to transform a traditional comprehensive high school into a New Tech Early College. What that means is that:

  • Our top priority is maintaining an empowering culture of mutual trust, respect, and responsibility.
  • We strive for 100% of learning to be project- or problem-based.
  • We are not threatened by state initiatives to standardize learning. Rather, we use standards as our foundation for creating curriculum centered on deeper learning.
  • Our teachers partner with outside businesses and organizations to add real-world relevancy to their projects. We have a local support network to make this easier.
  • We are a one to one laptop school with an open technology policy.
  • We integrate courses and subjects whenever meaningful connections can be made (e.g. GeoDesign, BioLit, American Studies, etc.).
  • We have a strong yet supportive, flexible, and understanding teachers' union.
  • Staff collaboration is a rule. Teachers work together to solve school-related issues, critique projects, and to build school school culture.
  • We understand the power of protocols. We use them in both adult and student learning.
  • We assess "soft skills" (like collaboration, professionalism, communication, and critical thinking) in addition to content as part of every course grade.
  • Our future graduates will earn forty hours of community service and 100 hours of job shadowing, exploration, or internship.
  • Our stated goal is to double the number of graduates successfully completing 24 credits in college before the summer of 2017. We are confident that we will get there.
  • All of our students will have an opportunity to earn up to 30 college credits during their first four years of high school.
  • In 2016-17, we will begin offering a "fifth year" to all students interested in having us pay for and support them during their first year of college. This means that students could graduate from our high school with an associates degree in five years. We estimate that approximately 60-70% of our student body will take advantage of this opportunity.
  • As the only full-school New Tech Early College high school in the state of Michigan, we are innovators in our field. This comes with a great deal of pride, but more importantly, it requires a great deal of energy and time.

I've been very fortunate to start these initiatives with a very skilled and experienced administrator who has decided to retire at the end of this year. To replace him, we will need an instructional leader who understands change leadership and believes in the principles of progressive education.

Do you know such a person? If so, please encourage him or her to apply. The formal posting for the position can be found here. For more information, visit our website.

Creating Engaging Classrooms

"Everyone please stop what you're doing, close your computers, and give me your fullest attention. This work we're doing is very important and we all want to do our best. I'm noticing that several of you are off-task now and that's not good. Let's stay mindful of our work and try to remain on task. Thank you."

If you've ever taught, I'm sure you've said this or something similar to students. I know I have.

Let's stop.

The truth is that statements like the one above aren't effective. They distract the students who are on-task without actually addressing the reasons that some are off-task in the first place.

We continue to say things like this because the immediate response is short-term compliance. Students appear to be more engaged after we say something so we feel better about ourselves. This makes us more likely to say things like this in the future.

I'm not suggesting that we stop addressing off-task behavior; I'm actually suggesting that we start.

The next time you're planning produces less engagement than desired, take time to reflect upon why before taking action. Then, take action.

Here are a few ideas, as examples:

1. Involve your students in the planning process.

Form a student academic advisory board in your school or class. Before launching a new project or unit, ask them to convene to tune your ideas. Take their feedback seriously and use it to improve your practice.

Include a broad range of learners. You'll want input from multiple perspectives; asking only the top ten for feedback won't solve your engagement issues.

2. Observe disengaged students and ask them why they're struggling to stay on task.

If your question is sincere, they'll be quite honest. Write their responses down as if you were a researcher collecting data on student behavior. Taking this step will pay off immensely during future planning.

Over time, analyzing this data will reveal patterns of student disengagement. Are the same students always disengaged? Is there a particular activity that disengages more students than others? Are students in some classes or at different times of day more likely to disengage than others?

By analyzing data, you'll be better able plan for and prevent disengagement in the future. To do this, however, you have to first collect the data!

3. Ask an outsider to do the observing for you.

A trusted administrator might be a good place to start. Lacking that (or additionally), ask a colleague to sit in during one of your classes to collect data. Be specific about what data you want them to collect. Help them help you by providing the data collection format and tool.

Do you want to know when or how often a particular group of students disengages? Do you want to know what your proximity in the classroom does to engagement? An outside observer can see things that you never will in your own class.

4. Make peer accountability a celebrated part of your school or classroom culture.

It should not be the teacher's sole responsibility to keep everyone on task. In too many schools, though, we teach our students to be passive bystanders to their peer's disengagement and misbehavior. Make this unacceptable by addressing it explicitly and regularly when it occurs.

When one member of a group does significantly better or worse on an assessment than the the rest, there's a teachable moment that shouldn't be skipped. When one member of the group is distracting the others, what steps can that group take to address that distraction in a non-threatening way?

By taking class time to teach students to hold one another accountable to their work, you'll not only decrease disengagement, but you'll be teaching them an essential 21st-century skill.

5. End every project or unit with a day of student reflection.

Divide the day into three parts.

  1. Start with a review of the work they did and ask them to provide feedback on how you could improve upon it the next time around.
  2. Ask them to reflect upon how the class functioned as a group. What went well? What didn't? What might they be able to do next time to make the class better.
  3. Ask them each to reflect upon how they functioned, individually. What study habits or activities worked particularly well for them? What worked the least? What should they work to improve personally in the future?

Take notes throughout the day and store them with your lesson plans or project resources.

6. End every class with five minutes of honest reflection.

Choose a reflection format, as appropriate, to get student feedback on what they learned, what questions they have, or what needs to be covered more thoroughly the next day.

Whether it be through a journal, an exit slip, a discussion, or a any other format, the point is to increase communication from your students about what they need to learn to be successful.

7. Identify school and district resources for the most disengaged students.

Let's face it, we can't solve every problem ourselves. When we can't, it's important to acknowledge that we can't and to ask for help from someone who can. Regardless whether these students need academic, social, psychological, or behavioral support, remember that no classroom is an island. Use every resource available for this small segment of every school population.

8. Leverage parent relationships to help increase student productivity.

This is especially helpful when students are not engaging in homework. Calls and emails to parents for feedback and support are typically greeted more positively when delivered sincerely and without emotion.

Ask parents what their kids say about your class at home. What work do they see their kids doing at home? How much homework are their kids getting? Is it too much? Are other commitments getting in the way? What do they think could help you engage their kid in learning?

By taking time to collect and analyze data before deciding to act, and then acting intentionally to address the actual challenges of student engagement, we will start to realize a world with increased student engagement and achievement.

Moreover, you can stop giving the whole-class lectures on the importance of staying on-task.

Parent Communication 3.0

Imagine it's Sunday night. You're sitting on the couch with your spouse watching a reality show. During a commercial break, you pick up your smartphone to check Facebook and notice you have 3 new emails from your son's school. Each one is an automated messages about his grades.

He's failing.

Without much understanding of the school's online gradebook or new grading policies, you call him into the room and ask for an explanation about what's going on. You're concerned.

He's dumbfounded. There is no way he could be failing. This must be a mistake.

In fact, he asserts, it may not even be his fault. His teachers don't even teach any more; they call themselves facilitators now and expect the students to do all the learning on their own. It's very stressful and everyone is failing.

This hits a nerve. You know that the school is going through a change process; you attended a meeting about the changes at the beginning of the year. Could they be expecting too much too soon? Is your child, who has always received high marks in school, being harmed by these new changes at school?

You call a few other parents to hear how their kids are doing. The perception is mixed: some are doing better, some the same, and some worse. During each of these conversations, you share your concern for what's going on at school. Could it be the school's fault that your kid is failing?

In desperation, you send a terse email to the teachers and carbon copy the school principal.

While the actual conversations that play out may vary, the theme of the messages I receive is almost always the same:

  1. My child is not doing as well at school as he has in the past.
  2. The school has changed a lot since I was in school.
  3. My child can't articulate what he is doing wrong.
  4. The problem must be the school, program, or teachers.

This is understandable. When the only information parents have comes from their prior experience, an automated email, and a struggling child, it's tough to argue with their logic.

There's no solution to this problem; in fact, it's not even a "problem" to be solved. Rather, it's a complex circumstance of communication that needs to be addressed in multiple simple ways.

1. Reduce the default number of notifications sent out to parents by online gradebooks.

I've heard from parents that our online gradebook sends out as many as ten emails per day, by default, depending on teacher activity. Simply from a signal vs. noise point-of-view, that's far too many. While some parents tune out all emails they receive, others anxiously look into each one in fear that they are going to miss something important if they don't.

I feel sorry for the students with parents in either case.

The truth is that in a challenging school environment, grades fluctuate, especially at the start of each grading term. To notify parents of each fluctuation as they occur is unreasonable: it causes anxiety and leads to an inaccurate assessments of reality.

Schools need the capability to change these default settings to meet their school's particular needs. Or, the default ought to be set to zero; motivated parents who want notifications are more likely to turn them on than they are to turn them off.

2. Involve parents well before problems ever arise.

It's a common misconception that parents should become less involved in their children's education as they grow older. This is harmful. Teenagers need their parents support and understanding as much as they did when they were in elementary school. The only change should be what parental involvement looks like over the years.

A group of parent leaders recently told me that I need to hold a mandatory "parent bootcamp" every summer. While the logistics of this alone scare me to death, the need behind the sentiment is quite real: the high school their kids are going to is a lot different from the high school they attended. The building might be the same, but the culture, instruction, and resources are not.

Parents of 21st-century educated kids need more than a handbook and an hour-long orientation. They need consistent, quality, flexible, and varied opportunities to become involved in their children's educational development.

3.) Educate students on training their parents to use and understand the school's online gradebook.

There's a very practical reason why students should want to do this: to get their parents off their backs when grades do fluctuate. As long as the training comes well before problems arise, parents will know what to expect and when.

Parents may still send teachers emails (and we want them to), but with a more thorough understanding of the school's online gradebook, and after a practical conversation with their child, the tone of that email should change from terse to inquisitive.

4.) Urge teachers to email parents before posting grades that may have a negative impact on overall scores.

There are times when a teacher's lessons do not go as planned. Student writing, for example, does not always live up to expectations. Sometimes, students do not test as well as we'd like them to.

Without getting into an entirely different challenge, let's just acknowledge that when teachers raise performance expectations beyond that which students are accustomed to reaching, the scaffolding can sometimes fall apart.

When it does, it is essential that teachers email parents before grades are posted. And, it's equally important that this email is positive.

Here's an example email that was sent by one of my American Studies facilitators to learners (CC'ing parents) regarding a recent draft:


We have published the Background Information grades. As we stated in class, the paper was graded on each person's individual section of this portion of the White Paper. We were looking for citations, in-text citations, proper use of mechanics, and organization. We also looked to make sure you were contributing equally to your group.

We acknowledge that many of you will be disappointed by your grade, but ask that you understand this is just one phase of the project. As you take our feedback and apply it to your paper, the paper will improve and so will your overall grade for it. Remember, we are all learning and a big part of learning is struggling with the concepts until we can grasp them. I have already seen how much many of you have learned as a result of your struggles and everyday we learn more and more. Please keep that in mind as we push toward completing our rough draft in the week to come.

Have a wonderful week!

This email informs learners and parents that:

  • expectations on the project are high and will not be lowered.
  • that many struggled to meet the expectation.
  • there is no reason for alarm.
  • lessons learned through feedback can be applied to future phases of the project.
  • With effort, everything will be okay.

Imagine the same Sunday night again. This time, something is different.

Getting emails from the school's gradebook is rare, so when one comes in, you investigate it. Recalling the parent workshops you attend, you check for grade comments, look at the posted agendas, and find the rubric used to assess your son's writing.

The conversation you have with your son is more productive because you have talked about the online gradebook before and you have a common understanding about what's going on at school. Moreover, you already had a similar conversation with your son about his grades when the teacher emailed his concern earlier in the week.

Feeling a sense of relationship with the school and the teachers there, you still send an email. This time, though, it's more to learn about after-school study hours and to ask if there is anything you can do to help at home.

Your son is still failing, but you understand why and know what steps he needs to take to improve.

What more could you ask for?

Until - Video Edition

The New Tech Network has uploaded the video of my Ignite Talk at the closing session of their annual conference last year. For the record, if I seem nervous and rushed, it's because I am. Ignite presenters are given only 5 minutes to present 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds. I'm trying to pack a lot of (too much) information into each slide.

Overall, the product is watchable and the message is something I think about a lot as a school administrator. Enjoy.


Here are the slides and notes from my Ignite talk from yesterday. Please keep in mind that my notes were just that: notes. I did not say these exact words on stage. When the video goes up, I'll update this post.

I'd like to share a simple idea that changed the way I view my role as a school administrator. In doing so, I'd also like to challenge you to reflect upon your school's current discipline policy and how you personally deliver consequences to the young people you serve.

Before I make my point, though, I need to start with some definitions. Behavioral Psychologists define learning "as the process leading to long-term or potential behavioral change." Typically this takes one of two forms.

Punishment can be defined technically as "any consequence to our behavior that reduces the likelihood that we'll repeat the behavior again." For example, if I ridicule a student for talking in class, and she does not like ridicule, then she is less likely to talk in class in the future. This is punishment.

The flip side of punishment is reinforcement, which can be defined as "any consequence to our behavior that increases the likelihood that we'll repeat the behavior again. For example, if I tell a student that she is a good writer and she respects my opinion then she is more likely to write in the future. This is reinforcement.

Of course, years of living this way in public education have left us all understanding these concepts all too well. Do your work or you will fail. Put your cell phone away or I'll take it away. Raise your hand and then I'll call on you. In public education, we get behavioral modification.

All to often when we talk about disciplining children what we really mean is punishment. I'd like to make the point today that discipline and punishment are not the same thing. Discipline is something we want our students to embrace from within. Punishment is a tool frequently used in schools that comes from without.

The message to the punished is this: "You're not able to discipline yourself. You have done something wrong. Therefore, we're going to do bad things to you to teach you a lesson." The very nature of this is the opposite of empowering. It removes power.

It was the realization that if I'm to create a culture that is truly empowering then I must punish less. In fact, I probably shouldn't punish at all. Instead what I needed to do was find a way to reinforce much, much more.

Because I like and respect you, I need you to know that I'm not crazy. Remember that reinforcement and reward are not the same thing. I'm not recommending that you ignore anti-social behavior and I'm certainly not suggesting that you start giving our lollipops for all types of good behavior.

What I am saying is that we need to find a way to reframe the way we communicate consequences to turn them into reinforcers. Here's a little trick to help you do this: take any traditional punishment, add the preposition "until" followed by a pro-social consequence, and you should have a reinforcing statement. Let's look at an example.

Consider the statement "You have detention." Assuming that the student being assigned detention doesn't like it, the purpose of this consequence is to reduce behavior. By our definition earlier, then, this is punishment. Now, let's take that exact same statement and apply until to turn it into reinforcement.

In this revised statement, notice that the student still has detention, but I've respected the student enough to add a condition to get out. I've turned the traditional punishment of detention into a reinforcer because instead of focusing on reducing bad behavior, I'm focusing instead on increasing good behavior. The student is now more likely to come to me with a plan. Let's look at one more example.

Consider the punishment "Shut down your computer," said to a student for overusing social media during group work time. Never happens, right. This statement, taken at face value, is punishing because its purpose is to reduce social media overuse by this student in the future.

If we apply my rule and add the until to this statement, we change the focus of the consequence form, "You are bad and cannot handle using your computer" to "Let's talk about this later on when I have more time." This student is now more likely to talk to you later, thus it is a reinforcer.

The cynics and psych minors in the room will tell you that things are never this black and white. While issuing these consequences our goal is still to reduce bad behavior. But the focus of the statement has changed from what you are doing to the learner for being bad to what the learner has to do to be good.

The next time and every time that you issue consequences to  students, ask yourself where you're attention is focused? What message are you sending to students about who they are? Have you given ample opportunity to correct what's been done? Is your consequence respectful?

If the answer to these last two questions is no then step back and ask yourself if you're truly empowering students at all. Be tough on yourself to rethink traditional punishments in a way that will shift the focus from what's been done to what can be done.

Take advantage of consequences by treating them as opportunities to connect with students about their decisions and the effects that they have on others. After all, aren't most behavioral issues in schools related in one way or another to relationships.

As a point of caution, don't be creepy by overusing this idea or becoming overly manipulative. For example, don't give students unrealistic expectations to fulfill like raising their grade from a D to an A to regain your trust for using a cell phone during class.

The last point I want to make is to love what you do. If ever you're considering a consequence for a child that doesn't make you feel good about the work that you do, ask yourself if there's another way to frame it so it better aligns with your personal and school philosophy. Thank you.

Roll Your Own Digital Signage

Last fall, I was lucky to have an interesting problem: our newly renovated learning space included eight 42" monitors, each located above a "laptop touchdown station" where students could plug in to collaborate, practice presentations, etc. The challenge was deciding what to show on these screens when students were not plugged in.

Corridor at Niles New Tech in Niles, Michigan

After researching commercial digital signage solutions, we decided that there has to be a better (less expensive) way to do this on our own. This post will outline what we did to create a social and dynamic digital signage solution using HTML, CSS, and a bit of javascript. While I image that "what we did" will be pretty specific to our needs at the time, my hope is that some of the ideas shared in this post will be helpful to others down the road.

To start, let's talk about the hardware:

  • The monitor we went with was the NEC V422 because it had sound, accepted a variety of input types, and had scheduling capabilities to turn on and off automatically at specified times of day.
  • Behind each monitor was an electrical outlet, an ethernet port, and an HDMI port. The HDMI port worked simply as a local connection for students to plug into that station. It only ran one foot down the wall to a second input plate above the counter.
  • Connected to the back of each monitor via VGA was a simple NComputing L-Series virtual PC.  These boxes were connected to our network via the ethernet jack and were the necessary link to make our digital signage work.
  • On the other end of the network connection was obviously a server running the virtual PC installations.

That was about all the hardware we needed to make this thing work. The rest of the work was in the software. Here's what happened on each:

  • My network admin setup the NComputing devices to automatically restart, login to the network, and open Chrome in full-screen mode every night. Since I didn't do any of this work I can't provide much detail beyond telling you that it worked. Of course, there were times when a particular device lagged or didn't work properly but the fix was usually as easy as restarting the individual box manually.
  • We set http://sign.nilesnewtech.org as the homepage in Chrome for each of these setups so that it would always open to our signage webpage.
  • We then set the timer on each monitor to turn on at 7am and turn off at 4pm. Every morning, when the students came in, the signage would be on every screen. If students wanted to "take over" a monitor locally to use it as an external monitor, they simply changed inputs and plugged in their laptop via HDMI.

Screenshot of the Niles New Tech digital signage webpage.

Once we had monitors connected to virtual PCs that automatically opened a webpage every night, our next step was to design and code a webpage with some interesting content.

When designing the site, I knew that I didn't want to create anything that would require much future updating through the backend. In other words, if I had to go back through the HTML every time I wanted to make a change, I knew this solution would fail. I don't have time to spend my day in code.

With this in mind, I started looking for javascript solutions that would take advantage of APIs to pull content from other sources like GoogleDocs, Twitter, or Flickr. By taking advantage of these services, I was able to create a single webpage that dynamically pulls content from these services throughout the day. My teachers, students, their parents, and visitors can all easily post content right alongside our school calendar and announcements. 

Here are the resources I used:

  • The calendar is a simple Google Calendar embedded into the page. You can setup your parameters for this right within the Google Calendar embed interface.
  • Everything that follows requires the jQuery library.
  • The HTC Hero inspired digital clock / weather widget is called jDigiClock.
  • Both the News & Announcements and Shout-outs sections of the site pull content from Twitter and are powered by electronaut's LiveTwitter plugin.
  • The image slideshow that pulls recent images from the school's Flickr is powered by Flickrfeed.

Screenshot of index.html

Once I found all of the resources needed to make the signage work, I started coding. Attached is a zipped up copy of everything I have at http://sign.nilesnewtech.org. Your free to steal the design and everything I've done. I've simply pulled together resources from other places. 

Download the files here.

Other things you'll need to do and know:

  • The News & Announcements section pulls content from a specific Twitter account. I gave access to this Twitter account to my teachers and secretary so that they could post whenever they had something to share. A notable benefit of doing this is that you can share the Twitter account with parents and students through other places (like your website, on Twitter, etc.). It's not only useful for the sign. (Edited on line 50 of index.php)
  • The "Shout-outs section pulls content from tweets that include a specified phrase (like a hashtag). This allows anyone to get their words on the screen just by using that tag in their tweet. This is an important and powerful part of the sign - it keeps people looking. (Edited on line 51 of index.php)
  • You'll need a Flickr account to link up to the pictures. (Edited on line 7 of setup.js) We all installed Flickr uploader apps on our phones so that we could easily take a picture of student learning in the classroom and upload it right to our shared account. Then, the next time the sign refreshed, it would show the new pictures you just took.
  • There are refresh rate caps with Twitter. You may need to change the refresh rates on lines 50 and 51 of index.php if you have a lot of signs pulling from Twitter simultaneously.

That's about all I have to share. I realize that this is not a very good technical post for those of you without a coding background. I simply can't think of any way to explain much more without turning this into a coding tutorial. If you have questions or hang-ups, feel free to post questions as comments or you can find me on Twitter @ptrkmkl.

Math Dream Sequence A

Here is my first shot at a dream sequence for high school math. It's truly a "dream" sequence: flaws, incomplete stories, and all. My point here is not to hit the nail on the head. I just hope to share an idea that math can be sequenced differently with a better result.

Here it goes:

9th grade

All incoming high school students take the same math course integrating Algebra 1 and Geometry. If they were successful in Algebra 1 in middle school, great. They can take an "Honors Geometry" track embedded within regular Geometry and be leaders in the classroom by completing all problem extensions, helping others, etc.

Students in this integrated math course would receive two math credits and would have two math teachers, but there would be no difference between them. Both teachers would be responsible for both subjects and students would see them as equals.

The course would be 90–120 minutes long and would meet every day. Instruction would be 100% project- or problem-based. Students would be divided into periods by the previous year's academic performance to achieve a diverse group in every class. With two teachers and support from special education and counselors, learning would be differentiated for all learning styles and paces.

10th grade

Learners who are successful in math during the 9th grade would move on to take an integrated Physics / Algebra 2 class. This course too would have an Honors track embedded within it. Extensions to problems would be required by these Honors students who would be expected to take a leadership role in the classroom.

This course would have two teachers: both certified in math and science. Again, students would not know who was who - both teachers would take responsibility for teaching both subjects. The class would be 90–120 minutes long and meet every day. Instruction would be 100% project- and problem-based. Learners at all levels would be in the same classroom for this course.

11th grade

By the third year of high school, some students would be prepared (and will need) to take Pre-Calculus. Others may have struggled through their first two years of math and/or have educational plans that do not require them to learn much more advanced mathematics. Having already satisfied 3/4 of the MIchigan's requirements in mathematics, it's at this point that it makes sense for a few divergent paths to emerge in math sequencing.

  1. Students in need of advanced mathematics understanding could take a stand-alone, hour-long, problem-based Pre-Calculus course or a more traditional semester-long Pre-Calculus and Calculus 1 course sequence at the community college.
  2. Students not needing advanced mathematics who are interested in a service career could take an integrated Statistics & Social Science (Sociology/Psychology) course.
  3. Students interested  in more hands-on technical career could earn their math credit through a program at the nearby Career and Technical Education Center.

12th grade

By creating divergent paths during the 11th grade, students' math options would become even more specific to their desired outcomes and ability during their fourth year of high school.

  1. Students following a path of advanced mathematics could continue to take advanced courses at the community college.
  2. Students following a service or health career path could earn credit through industry-specific math courses offered at the community college.
  3. Students attending the Career Center would continue to earn their math credit through the programs offered there.
  4. Students choosing to change paths would be supported to do so according to their ability.


To reiterate the point made in the first paragraph: this plan is not perfect. The cost of doubling up math in the freshmen year is substantial and would have to be offset in some way elsewhere in the school. The cost and quality of off-campus courses would also need to be considered.  

With that said, it gets students where they need to go without compromising classroom culture by splitting the most skilled math students from those who struggle. It creates math teaching teams who can support each other to truly differentiate. It provides ample time for students to complete challenging projects and problems. And, by providing two Michigan math requirements in the first year, it provides students the opportunity to re-take a course if they struggle and fall behind. It starts to get at some of the questions I was writing about last night.

I realize that there are a lot of points and assumptions that I'm making without specifically spelling them out. As a rule, that's probably going to be a theme in my writing. I simply don't have time to pull out every detail. The point is that I hope others will join in the conversation. Things will get spelled out in time. If you have questions, I encourage you to ask. 

Math Switch-a-roo

Lately, I've had trouble getting the sequence of high school math out of my head. For example, in Michigan, where I work and live, most students learn math as follows:

  1. Algebra 1
  2. Geometry
  3. Algebra 2
  4. Pre-Calculus
  5. Calculus

Following this sequence, the only way for a student to get to calculus while in high school is to take Algebra 1 in the 8th grade. Since not every student needs or will be successful in calculus, most students wait to take Algebra 1 until they get to high school.

In my district, a quarter to a third of students take Algebra 1 in the 8th grade. It's safe to say that most of these students are "good at school." What I mean is that they tend to watch their grades and have supportive families. Completing schoolwork comes somewhat naturally to them. Their being good at school is one of the reasons they get scheduled at a pace to complete calculus their senior year.

As a school administrator charged with the task of re-thinking teaching and learning, I have to question whether this practice is wise or necessary. Here are some of my questions:

  1. What effect does being in a math class full of peers who are good at school have on your overall learning experience?
  2. What effect does being in a math class absent any peers who are good at school have on your overall learning experience?
  3. What effect does putting all students who are good at school into one math class have on the rest of your courses or your school culture (especially in small schools)?
  4. What implicit messages are you sending students by separating them by ability in this way?
  5. What data and research exists to support separating students into ability groups in math?
  6. What track record of success can schools who practice this method of scheduling math show to back up their practices?
  7. Who says that algebra should be split up like this? Is this best for learning?
  8. Who says that any math should be separated at all? Should we integrate everything and teach logical chunks of math each year?
  9. Can 8th graders comprehend Algebra 1 deeply enough to change gears to Geometry for a full year before going back to Algebra 2?
  10. Might there be other ways to sequence and structure math to better serve our students' needs.

I don't yet have answers to all of these questions, but I'm seeking them out. What I'm fairly certain of though is that math is sequenced the way it is because of tradition and status quo. We can change things if we have the will.

Last week we decided that all of our incoming 9th graders are going to take geometry. We're breaking the sequence to buy some time to think about algebra, to integrate all learners in all classrooms (from special education to honors students), and to allow my 9th grade teacher to focus on one subject instead of two or three.

Next year, I'm not sure what we'll do. What I'd like to do is teach all algebra in one class with two teachers and twice the time. I doubt I'll have the numbers on my side to make that happen the way I want, but I have a year to think about it, to share my ideas with others, and to come up with a better solution.