What if we are heading in the wrong direction? #litleaders

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

– J.K. Rowling

This question recently cropped up from one of our faculty members. We are deep into exploring the connection between reading and writing, building a foundation for literacy instruction schoolwide. My response was off-the-cuff, sharing some general ideas, but maybe a little too vague and lacking coherence. The source of their concern was likely our high marks on our school report card. Here is what I wanted to say in my preferred mode of communication (writing).

When a school decides to pursue a literacy initiative as a whole faculty, they are already heading in the right direction. Anytime we can get everyone on the same page around reading and writing instruction, we build a common language and understanding for what will occur regularly in each classroom. Actually, the only wrong direction is by making no decision. By allowing everyone to have 100% autonomy in how reading and writing instruction will be delivered in classrooms, we create the conditions for student inequity.

A quality schoolwide literacy initiative should allow for some flexibility with teachers to personalize their approach. There should be enough room for teachers to have voice and choice in how instruction will be delivered. It’s the same thing we want for our students, right? We need to model this belief at every level.

For literacy initiatives that start to feel more closed in the level of autonomy for teachers as time progresses, be sure to check student assessment results. In my previous school, we felt like two years of writing training was possibly too scripted and squeezed some of the voice out of our students’ work. We facilitated a mid-year writing check. Sure enough: lots of structure but little style in students’ writing. As one teacher noted when we debriefed after the assessment, “Our kids will be able to nail a college essay, but do they love writing?” This information guided our decision to come back to a more holistic approach to teaching writing in the classroom.

Photo by Jamie Templeton on Unsplash

This decision to pursue a more structured writing approach was not wrong; our intentions were good and were based on what we believed our students needed. The only wrong approach would have been to forge ahead with our current efforts, ignoring what our students’ writing was telling us. This is different than what a lot of schools do: jumping from one initiative to the next, year after year. We knew that our students needed consistently strong literacy instruction year after year. Hopping from rock to rock along a stream of new ideas wasn’t going to help our kids become literate individuals, as tempting as it might be.

That’s why decisions for pursuing a schoolwide literacy initiative should be a part of a long-term plan. Three years is probably a minimum. A long-term plan reduces the desire for rock hopping. It’s easier to say “no” to a new and exciting professional learning opportunity when you have a pathway already laid out. Part of this long-term plan should include multiple points of celebration. These opportunities to highlight school success have to be tangible and genuine. In our school, we re-examine our beliefs about literacy, owning new beliefs after a year of schoolwide professional development work. We also set aside the beginning of staff meetings for staff celebrations. Teachers can share quick wins and victories. I also make a point of taking pictures of teachers innovating in their classrooms as they try and apply new strategies. These images are shared and celebrated before we begin learning about a new literacy strategy. All of our celebrations build on where we have been and inspire us to learn more.

That might be the biggest point in a response to this question about heading in the wrong direction: If our intentions are based on students’ needs and teachers’ informed beliefs, and we were are willing to adjust course in light of the evidence, then we cannot make a poor decision. The constant pursuit of becoming better in our practice is always the right choice.



Innovating Inside the Box

This is a reaction paper I wrote for a course I am taking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Technology and School Leadership”, facilitated by Dr. Richard Halverson. Enjoy!

Government, philanthropists and investors consistently come up with grand ideas and approaches to fixing education. Standards-based reform, new evaluation systems and 1:1 technology initiatives populate the school landscape. Yet there is very little to show for these efforts in terms of improving student outcomes.

One approach heralded by reformists is the charter school movement and offering school choice for families. The original intent of this movement was to free educators from the constraints of local bureaucracy and accountability measures “so schools and teachers can try things” (Kolderie, 10). Unfortunately, when results showed that charter schools were not seeing better results than traditional schools, the accountability pieces were brought back. Many charters now languish in corporate-run organizations with little personal investment from the higher ups. This is compounded with charters having to deal with poorer public perception. 

So what is the solution? Kolderie suggests bringing charters back with their original intent and positioning them as parallel programs. He refers to this as a “split-screen strategy”. “It is time to run both improvement and innovation simultaneously, side by side” (14). The idea is, while traditional public schools can work on continuous improvement, charter schools can serve as research and development arms of education. Eventually, Kolderie predicts, the traditional schools will adopt the strategies of the chartering organizations.

Innovation is critical for the success of American education, and chartering remains the states’ and the nation’s best strategy for innovation—for introducing, quickly, the new approaches to learning now possible. Innovation is chartering’s comparative advantage (30).

I would agree with Kolderie that innovation is critical for American education. Where I diverge philosophically from him is: why do we need charters to innovate?


As a school administrator going on ten years, I see few roadblocks in offering parallel programs within one school or district. Certainly, there are test scores to worry about, although if innovation is truly happening, we are building on what we are already doing and making it better. For this to work, school leaders need to support these efforts. Permission alone is not enough.

In addition, these efforts to innovate through the use of pedagogical approaches and technologies should not have to be an either/or proposition. For example, could one school offer two learning pathways in their building, with one option the traditional model and the other a more innovative concept? Families, educators and students (yes, students!) can determine which is best for each child. The innovative concept can start small and then grow as demand grows with it.

To conclude, when we take the approach that schools need to be fixed, and we never question the questioners, it builds on a deficit model. I understand the need to upend some outdated practices, especially when modern resources are so readily available for schools. Instead of “How do we improve schools?”, what if we supported schools and allowed them to improve from within? This is a strengths-based approach that taps into the existing knowledge within an organization. “Research and development should focus on what works for whom, when, and in what contexts” (Dede, 22). We have had a high stakes environment for the entire 21st century. It hasn’t worked. A level of autonomy along with the time and resources might prove to be the better strategy for change.


Dede, C. (2014). The Role of Digital Technologies in Deeper Learning. Students at the Center: Deeper Learning Research Series. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future.

Kolderie, T. (2014). The Split Screen Strategy: Improvement + Innovation. Edina, MN: Beaver’s Pond.

What Educators Can Learn from Uber

I wrote this yesterday as part of my staff newsletter. My experience at #IPDX16 was excellent, and it wasn’t only the conference. The city of Portland offered lots of experiences. Here is one of them.
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While I was very busy presenting and learning during the day, I did have some time to explore the city of Portland with colleagues and on my own. One of the most interesting experiences was using Uber to get around. It is a self-organized taxi service. You use the Uber app to connect with a driver. Anyone can be a driver as long as you have a reliable car. Once the driver sees your request, they come over within a couple of minutes. Payment is handled through the Uber platform, similar to PayPal.

Uber: Riding in Cars with Strangers

As I used this new service, here were a few observations I noted during the time.

  • It can be both scary and fun to try something new.

When a colleague told me to try Uber, I initially resisted. “Who’s the driver? How do you know they are safe?” They reasoned that you didn’t really know the taxi driver either, and that Uber has improved safety and reliability. So I took a chance, and it was positive. My first driver was welcoming, his car was clean, and he drove me to my destination quickly. In fact, all four Uber experiences were consistently good.

  • Competition can increase quality.

Prior to Uber coming into town, I was told that the Portland taxi service was not something to brag about. They weren’t timely about picking you up and were not always the most pleasant people to be around. Now that the traditional taxi service is not the only game in town with Uber, they have had to step up and improve their service.

  • Technology has it’s limits.

Using the Uber app to call a “cab” is a remarkable idea via a digital tool. It is also imperfect. For example, when I was trying to connect with a ride to go from downtown to my hotel, the driver could not pick up my GPS signal. I was in the middle of the city – with lots of smartphones. Of course, it was the one time it was raining in Portland that I couldn’t find a ride…

  • Never assume.

During my extended wait, one car that seemed to match the description of a driver pulled up to the curb. As I reached for the door, another person started getting into the front and asked, “Umm, what are you doing?” At first dumbfounded, I quickly realized that I was attempting to get into a stranger’s car! My eventual driver explained that this happens often, and to look for the “U” symbol in the window to confirm they work for Uber.

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So What Might Educators Learn from Uber?

Here are some possible connections between Uber and education.

  • It can be both scary and fun to try something new. Thinking about change, such as our upcoming peer coaching/observations, I imagine we might be feeling the same way. There is risk involved, but also the potential for reward. Having spoke with other schools that have engaged in peer observations, it sounds like the risk is worth it.
  • Competition can increase quality. If you know me at all, you know that I am a strong advocate for public education. I do not agree with the approach taken by supporters of school choice and the voucher program. That said, public education is feeling this pressure to increase our effectiveness, which has led to more awareness and effort. We have to keep innovating in order to provide the best education possible.
  • Technology has it’s limits. We’ve all experienced the lack of a wireless signal, a slow Internet, and login problems. I am glad that we don’t rely too heavily on digital tools to drive our instruction. Pedagogy usually comes first at our school.
  • Never assume. Observing student actions through an outsider’s perspective can help us avoid making snap judgments about the issue at hand. We can become aware of our own biases by asking some simple questions to develop a better understanding of the situation. I do this sometimes in my instructional walks.

Also check out John Spencer’s smart post, offering a comparison between education and the city’s food truck industry.