Lacking Leadership

Here in the overly large school district we are having a big argument over the use of Chromebooks. But the merits of that particular device is a discussion for another post. This particular rant concerns the huge leadership vacuum we have around here when it comes to the larger issue of instructional technology.

The Chromebook conflict involves our little group in the instruction department, many of our school-based trainers, and some of our principals versus the IT department. And, as is usually the case in conflicts like this, IT prevails. Not because they have solid research or compelling facts or even good anecdotal evidence on their side. No, what IT has is a leader willing and ready to express a vision for the place for technology in our educational process.

That the IT vision is a very narrow one, incorporating educational clichés often drawn from tech industry publications, and skewed towards what is most convenient for their technicians to set up and manage is totally irrelevant. When an instructional technology issue is raised in our system, their leaders are most often the people called to respond, the people who jump in front of the microphones to answer the questions. The IT voice is the one that fills the silence.

So where are our leaders on the instructional side? The ones with actual teaching and school administration experience who are supposed to represent the needs of teachers, students, and schools?

When it comes to a vision for technology in teaching and learning, we find that huge leadership vacuum. The superintendent, her deputy super, and other assorted members of her “leadership” team offer nice phrases about “21st century” this and that, they’re concerned about inequity, suggesting that we need programs like 1-1 computing, and they rave over photo-op sidebars like BYOD.

What they lack, however, is any kind of cohesive, clearly articulated concept of the place of technology for instruction. How all the devices and connectivity, on which we already spend tens of millions of dollars a year, might alter and improve the traditional educational process. Where should we be heading in the future.

Certainly we have teachers, school administrators, and others of us who are trying to shake things up, attempting to fill in the empty space and articulate some forward-looking ideas. And that kind of grassroots, guerrilla-style approach to leadership can be very effective, especially in a large bureaucratic structure. But it’s also a slow, scattered, largely unfocused approach to changing a system that is in love with it’s past successes, and which values inertia over almost everything else.

Ok, so none of my ravings here are meant to disparage the people in our IT department, most of whom are nice, very talented people doing a great job with the given resources. But the bottom line is that IT should not be making final decisions on what tools and techniques are used in the classroom. It should be the job of our instructional leaders, beginning with a clear definition of our instructional needs.

If they would only accept their responsibility.

More Than a Mission

Lots of companies and organizations have mission statements, the people at Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com, have written a creed for themselves instead.

I will never stop learning. I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me. I know there’s no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything. I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company. I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.

Over the years, I’ve been involved with writing more than a few mission statements for schools, offices, departments, and districts. However, with a few edits, that Automattic creed would be a great replacement for one of those bland collections of nice phrases strung together, assembled by committee and saying little of substance.

I especially like that their creed is about the members of the community, rather than a statement from the building.

Twitter Droppings

Being a small collection of links from my Twitter posts of the past week that deserve a few more than 140 characters.

Last week Google announced that HTML 5 would be the default format for all videos on YouTube. Most YouTube have no idea what that means (or the explanation in the post) but in the larger picture of the web, it’s good news. And one more sign that Flash is dying as a media distribution format, which can’t come fast enough for those who do understand since the technology is still buggy after all these years, not to mention a major security hole.

After last weekend’s Super Bowl, no one should be surprised that the NFL has annual revenues of $9.5 billion. What should shock you, not to mention the people leading this country, is that they are still a tax-exempt nonprofit organization. And it gets worse when you add in the billions of subsidies from state and local taxpayers that are used to pay for stadiums and other team facilities. “You really couldn’t ask for a better symbol of everything that’s wrong with US predatory capitalism.” Indeed!

Last week, the FCC decided to make some changes to reclassify internet service providers (like Verizon and Comcast) as “common carriers” under something called Title II. What does that mean to most of us who use the internet? David Weinberger asked an expert and their explainer is well worth a read. The issue is not that complicated but this is a major change that goes a long way to maintaining a “neutral” internet.

And finally, Fast Company speculates on why introverts are the best networkers on Twitter. I’m not sure I buy the premise, but much of the advice in the article could still apply to working with introverted students. And with helping everyone make the best use of social media.

It’s Not Pearson’s Fault

Despite carrying the title Everyone Hates Pearson, the profile of that company and it’s new CEO in Fortune almost makes you feel sorry for them.

The problem is, legions of parents, teachers, and others see the new Pearson in a very different light. Many of them, particularly in North America, where the company does some 60% of its sales, think of it as the Godzilla of education. In their view, Pearson is bent on controlling every element of the process, from teacher qualifications to curriculums to the tests used to evaluate students to the grading of the tests to, increasingly, owning and operating its own learning institutions.

Actually, the article is a good overview of Education Inc., and specifically the testing business. And the writer even includes a little bit of push-back on the assessment culture that has taken over most public schools, based on personal experience with her own child.

I cringe, feeling that I have failed as a parent if this is what she believes1. And yet she has a point. In New York City, that test helps determine which middle school you get into. In her classroom, the pressure was so great that the teacher referred to the tests by aliases: the “waka-waka” and the “whablah.” They were the elementary-school equivalent, it seemed, of Harry Potter’s nemesis Voldemort, more commonly referred to as “he who must not be named.”

In a remarkably short time, the worthy notion of holding students and teachers accountable seems to have morphed into a system centered on “teaching to the test.”

But that doesn’t last long: “This is not Pearson’s fault, of course.”

And she’s correct. We in the US did this to ourselves.

We elected leaders at all levels who want to privatize public education – and view learning as a process that can be automated and enumerated. If Pearson didn’t exist, there would be plenty of other companies sucking up millions to provide the tools to make that happen. Which, of course, there are anyway, in addition to the “Godzilla of education”, taking their smaller share of the public pie.

Anyway, this is a long article but well worth the time, keeping in mind it comes from a business publication.


  1. “If I don’t do well on the fourth-grade test, I won’t get into a good middle school. If I don’t get into a good middle school, then I won’t get into a good high school, and if I don’t do that, I won’t get into a good college, and then I won’t get a good job.”

Twitter Droppings

Being a small collection of links from my Twitter posts this past week that deserve a few more than 140 characters.

For many years we’ve been told that we need to differentiate our instruction. But, according to one writer, it doesn’t work. More specifically, “Differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students.” I wouldn’t go that far but I’m concerned the concept is being used to push “personalized” or “individualized” instruction which, as I wrote in an earlier post, is often about automating the learning process. That could be the ultimate joke.

One writer seems to believe there’s Too Much Damn TV: “1,715 TV series aired in 2014, of which 352 were scripted.” Yes, that is insane. It also makes me wonder how producers found 1363 subjects in the “real” world that were interesting enough to record.

Last week saw the first serious talks with Cuba in nearly 40 years. It’s great progress but also represents just how pig-headed US leadership can be. This “normalization” is long overdue and hopefully will lead to rethinking some of our other stupid foreign policy.

And finally, a milestone for anyone who has flown on US carriers in the past thirty years, Sky Mall is filing for bankruptcy. The cause is supposed to be “internet access and more gadgets on planes” but I’d like to think that people just got a little smarter about spending their money on that catalog’s crapgadgets. Or maybe not.