Thursday, December 21, 2017

What CTE Gets, What CTE Needs To Get More

Most of us (educators, business leaders, researchers, students and parents) have realized by now that our educational system has been and continues to be desperately behind in terms of success, especially as it connects to the future of work and our economy. If you don’t agree, stop reading and go watch one of those “Housewives of $%&^#*” shows.
With the continued demand need for change, we have turned to many solutions - including, but not limited to new standards, assessments, technology and programs. Historically, we had two high school tracks. There was vocational education - programs designed to train people for blue collar jobs. And then, in contrast, there were those that did a college prep program where the goals were college and a white collar job. Ironically, many of our college grads and non-grads now find themselves in grey collar jobs (underemployed and working in a career that did not require a college degree or their level of education). But I truly digress.
What I’m suggesting now is that we cannot look at education in terms of finite or separate categories. All students need high level learning, while also seeing connections between their education and long-term career/life paths. That is why most educators, and others who are trying to lead the way, are continually looking at things that include different pedagogies (project-based learning, design thinking, tech integration) and newer programs (Career Technical Education, STEM, Makerspaces, Linked Learning).
I’d like to focus on one of these programs or approaches that has been getting alot of attention and rightfully so. Vocational Education has re-emerged and is now called Career Technical Education (often referred to as CTE). CTE is now visible in almost all secondary programs through specific career pathways, academies, linked learning programs, electives classes and more. Whereas the former vocational education was hands-on, it was not necessarily steeped in the new CTE elements of career pathways, industry standards, professional advisory groups, internships and other work-based learning. CTE is now standards-driven and working to respond to our new global economy, as well as means of connecting students to their learning. CTE works to engage students, create meaningful ways to build skills and learn content, as well as to have students be thinking about their long-term career path and educational needs. Indeed, students in these CTE courses have higher high school graduation rates, college success rates, grade point averages and career placement.
CTE’s foundations and intentions are both good. It is grounded in connections to the real world and career. However, in my estimation, based on many visits to high schools and colleges around the country, there are some things that CTE needs to incorporate in terms of pedagogy and culture that are more aligned with the rest of the change in education.
Non-CTE programs could learn a great deal from the world of Career Technical Education. They could pay closer attention and adopt/adapt the following practices into programs affecting all students. Let’s first look at what CTE does well and then what CTE can improve upon:


  • Student Choice - by now, we must realize the amazing human impact of choice. CTE programs and courses are typically ones that students opt into, not just land in like our core programs. They represent areas of interest and careers and therefore have built-in student buy-in and relevance. I have argued for a long time that our core programs need to design aspects of choice throughout. Choice could be represented in course selections or ways to meet requirements, which projects to pursue, which collaborators to engage, how to present your final work and more. Even within CTE programs, there is often choice to pursue various certifications, experiences, internships and more. The more options, the likely the ultimate buy-in and engagement.

  • The Power of the Cohort - many CTE programs have students cohorted where they experience anything from multiple courses, teams of teachers and even projects together. The idea of a cohort is to gather strength and trajectory from the consistent and focused community that becomes more comfortable with another, as well as more successful over time. They become tight knit machines who have positive and professional relationships with one another, their teachers/advisers, community partners and mentors.

  • Skills-Focused - In our core academic areas, or our dominant current paradigm, there has been a move to be more skills-focused. The new standards and assessments have made a concerted effort to realign with skills and performance. That being said, everything from our graduate profiles to core curriculum still leave much to be desired when it comes to identifying and mastering skills. Yet, the private sector and industry, which CTE looks to for direction, is more focused on skills than ever before. Those are both technical skills and soft skills. The reality is that CTE courses and programs do a better job for students in both areas. The technical skills are applied, practiced and even perfected at times in real world, industry-related situations. And because there are typically more collaborations (peer-to-peer, mentoring, work-based learning, industry partners), soft skills are valued, taught, assessed and practiced a great deal more.
  • Partnerships - Due to the CTE expectation of having to partner with industry advisory boards, programs have built-in advisers, partners and mentors. These industry partners can serve as not only advisers, but also contest judges, presentation audience members, work-based learning opportunities and so much more. They can also contribute to and support curriculum development, equipment and resources, industry trends and developments, community engagement, administrative support, program advocacy, showcase/exhibition venues and much more. It is imperative that students have adult relationships, mentors if you will, outside of the school and home environment. These should be professionals from industry, business, government or non-profit work that serve the students, their future employees and customers, as an educational support system.


  • Instructional Pedagogy - this seems to be a common weakness in CTE classes and programs. Although there are great tools, resources, hands-on opportunities, industry partnerships and more, there is often not an understanding of more contemporary and 21st century-oriented instructional approaches and pedagogies. Many of our CTE instructors come from industry and have very little formal teaching experience or training. This is not automatically bad, but they need to realize much has changed and evolved instructionally since their days in school. For example, many CTE instructors still rely on direct instruction exclusively (lecturing) then disseminating new content or information to their students. They would benefit from more collaborative and student-led practices that are more engaging. Additionally, they would also benefit from learning approaches such as project-based learning. Although, they have lots of hands-on activities and labs, they need to connect the hands-on to larger instructional and learning needs and challenges. Their industry associations and equipment are often new school, but far too often their teaching practices are old school.

  • Tech Integration - There is some irony here as there is with the pedagogy. For example, most CTE programs are fairly adept at incorporating their latest tech from their industry. Many of them are using everything from 3-D technology to drones to industry-specific software. But there they often lack is in the area of instructional technology. Many instructors are still lecturing and having students take notes, versus having students collaborate digitally on tasks and challenges. Many are not using things such as Google Applications, web-based resources, various video and presentation applications. While some of their core colleagues, albeit a minority, are doing things like having students blog or create their own websites/digital portfolios, too many CTE instructors are still having students keep paper notebooks, binders, worksheets and textbooks. They need to get core teachers to use the industry tech, while they use a lot more of the instructional tech that the core teachers are using.

  • Public Work - This is directly connected for the most part to the first two. Many of our CTE programs have students producing high quality work. But far too often, no one knows about it. Our students are entering an economy where their personal branding, marketing and presentation skills are going to be more vital than ever before. They are going to compete regularly for “gigs” also known as employment. It’s tragic to know some of the fine work that students have completed and even mastered, but yet are not featuring on a website, blog or digital portfolio. It’s a sin to not have demos and presentations of their work on YouTube and Vimeo. It’s limiting them if their work is not part of public spaces, meetings, showcases and exhibitions.

  • Future of Work & the Gig Economy - We often think that any change that is happening now has happened before. Yes, we have experienced technological advances before. Yes, we have had radical new economies emerge before. Yes, we have witness global changes previously. However, many experts agree that we have probably not seen this level of rapid change and disruption to our systems that we are seeing now, especially happening simultaneously. And yes, much of what we are predicting is not an exact science. However, all of us need to pay more attention to what is  unraveling. Whether it is artificial intelligence, freelance employment trends, emerging economies, new or disappearing industries, climate, energy and so much more, our students are truly entering a new frontier. All of us, especially in education, need to study this, attempt to understand it and ultimately prepare for it. It’s a moral, social and ethical obligation. Anything that we are doing in schools that is not connected to this could be questioned. Typically, our parents, students, community members, policy makers and others do not possess deep awareness of this at all. It’s our duty to enlighten one another and our stakeholders. Our students’ futures, as well as ours, truly depends on it.

Naturally, education as a whole can learn a great deal from the successes of so many of our CTE programs. However, CTE cannot operate in isolation either and needs to learn from the best of transformative education outside of their standard practices. Mutual benefits await.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

If We're Banning Phones, We Won't Connect Our Students To The Future

For those of us that follow the news, especially education news, we don’t have to wait very long for an educator, or educators, to give us the excuse for a blog post. This week’s winner goes to the principal and staff at Korematsu Middle School in California’s East Bay Area.
They were recently featured, and apparently heralded, by an article in  Ed Source ( for their recent compliance and control upgrade that bans students from using their cell phones at lunch and during their free time.
According to principal Matthew Burnham, they tried to let the 7th and 8th grade students use their cell phones last year during these times and it was, according to them, an abysmal failure. The school claims that due to the students being “glued” to their cell phones, no one was talking and interacting with one another. And after watching the movie “Screenagers” and drinking from that proverbial firehose of biased information, this school was trying to have the students spend less time with headphones on, listening to music, having their necks bent forward and dozens of other student ailments caused by cell phones.
The article also said that the students were engaging in conflict and drama via social media and they wanted to put a stop to that. Furthermore, the article quotes an English teacher at Korematsu who found a student pretending to read a book while actually looking at their phones. Principal Burnham even directed students over the microphone to talk to the person next to them at lunch.
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(photos courtesy of Joe Sanfelippo)
What have we become? What is our definition of teaching, leading or mentoring? Are we not satisfied to be facilitating what students are doing during their class time that we need to dictate to them what they during their personal time?
I can’t help but imagine what these educators would do if any of us told them to get off of their phones and talk to one another while in the teachers’ lounge or at Starbucks. And we all know that the best way to teach students anything, especially responsibility, is to just ban it. Right? WRONG!
To me, this actually epitomizes the divide we are experiencing in education. It’s the classic compliance vs. creativity. In an effort to solve a problem, or teach responsibility, too many times educators lean towards the compliance side of thinking. Kids are to be quiet, obedient and controlled. If so, they are learning, according to this mindset. The problem is that this is the exact opposite of two things: (1) Teaching our students to live and work effectively in a digitized, globalized and transformed society, as well as (2) doing things that actually work.
Education, or educators, are famous for continuing to promote and implement things that have actually never been very effective (if not counterproductive) - i.e. homework, detention, overreaching dress codes, etc.
Do we want to approach students as young adults and how we’d like to be approached? Or do we want to continue to control them? To me, it’s that simple. I’m not suggesting that we don’t have rules, guidelines or policies. I’m asking that they be common sense.
And what about the actual problems? Things such as isolation, distraction, drama and conflict are not technology or cell phone issues. They are human issues that we need to address comprehensively and personally - not by banning use of phones during personal time.
In my experience, the more we make things taboo, the more they become attractive. Creating new policies and rules is not a substitute for actual teaching, training and respect. I worked at a school that allowed students to have their phones throughout the day and especially at lunch and breaks. And you know what? Students were talking, socializing and playing all of the time. And it wasn’t because we asked or directed them to. It’s because we worked to create a happy and healthy atmosphere and culture overall. And it’s also because we didn’t try to direct or mandate their every move.

If we treat students like they do at Korematsu Middle School and others, I don’t think we’re training them for the future of work where they need to be able to master not only the technology, but independence. Are the employees at Google, Apple, Microsoft and others told not to be on their phones at lunch or break time? Of course not. So, what world are we training our students for? Certainly not for the 21st century workplace and economy. We’re just leaning on what we seem to know best - control and compliance. Instead, we should be focusing on engaging, empowering and unleashing our students. We can focus on control or creativity but cannot master both.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

21st Century Educator Oath #1: Defend Young People Whenever You Can

This blog post represents a new challenge and series. I hope to release a series of posts each representing an oath that I believe all educators should take. This is 21st Century Educator Oath #1: Defend Young People…..
One does not have to travel very far, or pay attention for very long, to hear some adult (older person) make a disparaging remark about a young person. I hear it almost every day and sadly often from educators. It’s a litany of young people attacks such as calling them “lazy,” “irresponsible,” “selfish,” “immature,” and so on. One can also hear continuous criticisms of their music, dress, language and more. It’s not only a pattern that repeats, but it almost seems to be an obligation. I know my dad has these criticisms about myself and my peers at times and I can guarantee that his dad did about him as well. I have continuously worked hard to not fall into this trap as I have gotten older.
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(photos courtesy of Joe Sanfelippo)
After almost three decades of  of working with young people in six high schools and many other environments, I’m here to dispel and refudiate this notion that young people are anything less than their parents or grandparents. Indeed, I actually think each generation gets better….not worse.
    When I graduated from high school in the early 80’s, I had never heard about or witnessed a peer of mine volunteer to do community service. It would have been a foreign suggestion. Less that 20 years later, I watched as hundreds of students I worked with created charity events, started new charitable organizations, raise money and awareness and so much more.
And that’s just the beginning. I have now seen young people own their own companies, become activists, be community leaders and truly impact their environments. They have their own websites, blogs, recording studios, non-profit groups and more. If one looks closely at all, you could be and should be amazed at what young people are doing. They are presenting, creating and communicating at levels that my generation never touched at that age (or maybe any age). In addition to exercising what seems to be our generational duty, I think we often say and do these things because  we don’t understand young people - and maybe we don’t want to. Older folks see things they don’t understand (again cultural things) and then criticize, minimize, and even ostracize. We remember things one way and anything that deviates from that self-established norm is bad. We then attach this to all that they do and simplify them in terms like “no work ethic.”
Every time I have put young people to the test, they not only have met my expectations, but far exceeded them. When I taught media classes in the early 1990s to high schoolers, they took all challenges to heart including, but not limited to more frequent publishing, more diversity in voice, more tech integration, more community outreach, more student voice and more varied formats. When I taught leadership and service learning, they took on every school and community challenge I could articulate. For example, when our school was being investigated by the Office of Civil Rights about campus acts of racism, they created HARMONY - the Diversity Talent Show (see more info at They also included Special Needs students in all school wide events, raised thousands of dollars for local and regional charities, donate more blood than any other demographic and YOU GET THE IDEA.
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At my last high school, students again took it to the next level. They became Student Project Coordinators where they co-taught and co-facilitated classes with their teachers. They were part of every interview or hiring committee. They helped create school policy, traditions, assessments, public presentations, school logos, school website and social media content and a long list of things that many said students shouldn’t and couldn’t do.
I’m well aware that young people have many challenges today. However, that’s not a new issue. Maybe some of the challenges are new, or more intense. But many are also part of being young. At the same time, most educators acknowledge that young people have tremendous resilience. We all know dozens of students, who despite all odds against them, not only survive, but thrive.
Meanwhile, what can we all do to fight this tendency or typical generational tendency to berate youth? Well, if you’re an educator, I think it’s your duty to fight for young people and always find the best in young people. If you work with them, it shouldn’t be too hard. So, not only find it, but promote it, celebrate it and appreciate it. And for those that are not fortunate enough to work with young people, they need to be educated. Next time you hear the negative, don't be afraid to share the positive. Not only are our young people our future leaders, they are leading earlier and better all the time.
    Whether you’re an educator or bystander, check yourself. One, make sure you’re not falling prey to the generational tendency to criticize the younger generation. And two, make sure you’re not putting down anyone because of something you just don’t understand. Our young people and students deserve our respect and trust. If we don’t demonstrate our faith in them, we could be limiting them in so many ways. Believing in students is fundamental to their development. Don’t believe the hype. They not only have work ethic, but  a whole lot more.

If you have read this far, do one more thing. Take an oath, to yourself and us however you like that you will DEFEND ALL YOUNG PEOPLE WHENEVER YOU CAN.

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Power of Professional Presentations For Students

Due to the increased degree of high quality project-based learning, as well as changes in standards, instruction, and technology, students are doing more presentations.
Some of our students’ presentations are for their peers. Others are for more public audiences like parents, community members and business leaders. And some are shared with globally and digitally through social media.
First, having all students consistently present their work is a good idea. Secondly, we know all students need support in improving their skills as presenters.


Presentation Rubrics (see are a great start, but we actually need to make the presentation skills part of our curriculum. Students need to learn about design, audience, messaging, branding and storytelling at the outset of a project and not just as an afterthought. Stories are how the most inspirational or motivational speakers present ideas, initiate innovation and ultimately get people to think. Need proof? Watch at any Ted Talk and analyze the structure of the presentation. They are narratives with beginnings, middles and ends with characters, conflict and resolution. Students need to master the art of informal and formal storytelling..

How can schools include presentations as part of their curriculum and give all students multiple opportunities to master those skills? Before we address the what and how, let’s explain the rationale of why.

Why Are Presentations & Presentation Skills
at the Heart of PBL and 21st Century Learning?

PBL speaks directly to the idea of student presentations when it asks work to be PUBLIC. And ultimately, public implies beyond the classroom. Presentations allow us to demonstrate that we have learned content, but also that we have applied that content to something relevant, personal and sustained.

Communication has always been foundational in terms of academic and professional success. But in this digitized, globalized, and personalized economy, it’s more important than ever. Employers will identify this as foundational. Finally, more and more people are being asked to give a presentation as part of a job interview.
Presentation knowledge and skills are now part of new state standards. See the CCSS Speaking and Listening Standards ( as an example. You can also find an emphasis on presentation in the technology standards as well.

We now use performance assessments to measure student progress toward learning outcomes. Presentations are performance assessments. We are now asking students to defend their learning and share their portfolios. When one can articulate what they learned, why it’s significant and how it’s applied, they are truly demonstrating critical thinking and depth of knowledge.

Personal Branding
We are moving into a new economy where experts predict that 40%-50% of our future work will be contracted or independent work - known as the ‘gig’ economy. And even if we are not completely dependent on the gig economy, we're all going to need to know how to brand ourselves. When we don’t work for one employer, company or organization, we have to continually work to both find and secure work. In addition to our technical and career skills, we will have to possess the ability to articulate continually why we’re the right person for that gig. We need to know who we are, what makes our story unique and how we can share that.

How Can We Advance Our Students’ Presentation Skills Through the Curriculum?

Yes, delivery and execution of a presentation are important. However, we can’t put delivery on the rubric and expect mastery.  We need to model, practice and perform - then repeat. As students become more involved and connected to their work, as well as master the other elements, delivery will improve too.

Visual Design Skills
This is the often neglected dark side of presentations. We all know what a bad presentation looks like, but we often don’t teach what a good one looks like. We need to make this a large part of the presentation curriculum. We have access to great digital tools, but are not well versed in design. Teachers don’t need to be experts, but rather look for the models and expose students to resources. The professionals use things like the Duarte ( so why shouldn’t our classrooms?

Like all skills, there is an art to storytelling. For example, all students should study things like Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” as a means to see how to craft a story (see more at Students need to learn that presentations are well-prepared and customized stories hand crafted by the presenter for maximum impact. We don’t just slap slides together with words and content. We start with the big ideas and learn how to communicate those with specifics meant to elicit, educate and illuminate. Students could learn from watching some the most popular Ted Talks (

Audience Analysis
All of us can benefit of understanding who is in the room (face-to-face or digital). We can learn how to cater and customize our message, as well as our our language, our visuals and our style. This will be important in all public venues and also enhance how presentations skills translate into interviewing/employability skills. The standards address the need for students to alter or customize their message for their specific audience.

Creating Opportunities

We need to continue to expand student opportunities to present publicly. Yes, students can present to peers in their classes. But that’s really the beginning and the novice level. To achieve mastery, we need to repeatedly set up more public opportunities. Schools can host and facilitate STUDENT SHOWCASES and EXHIBITIONS. We can connect our students and their work to board meetings, community groups, business leaders, website, social media and more. Schools can create and facilitate portfolio presentations, senior projects, defense of learning events, common digital portfolios, interviews and internships, competitions and contests, 20Time projects and other endless presentation opportunities for all students.

All students need to learn how to deliver effective presentations and have a myriad of opportunities, along with instruction, on how to make them as professional as possible. Because of the growing educational effort towards high quality project-based learning, we will continue to see the emphasis on students not only knowing information, but applying it and articulating.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

13 Reasons Why Education Transformation Is Slow, Challenged

Recently, Modern Learners wrote a piece about pending educational transformations. Naturally, this is not a new topic. Many have predicted sweeping change before. However, this time, the author indicates that it’s going to be different. (See complete article here:
The article’s initial contention has always been mine. The question is asked: “Given the number of books that have been written and papers that have been presented around  school change over more than 50 years by some very well informed and esteemed writers, why has there been so little change in schools and why do you think it will be any different this time ?”
First of all, I hope the writer is right. I would love nothing more than to see our entire educational system truly evolve and adapt into real 21st century models relevant to today’s students, economy, culture and technology. The problem is that my shoulder angel and devil are battling it out. It’s classic optimism vs. traditional pessimism.
Since I began teaching in 1990, there has been an on-going reform movement, in many cases discussing many of the same things, but truly little has changed. We have been hearing terms such as relevance, engagement, application, higher level thinking, personalization, technology for a long time. And yet, when one looks closely, very little has changed overall in terms of our educational system and culture.
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In addition to the question above, I would also add to that list thousands of keynote speakers, blog posts, consultants and conference sessions. All have been calling for sweeping change, while often presenting the path on how to do so.
The thesis here is that we are now in the perfect storm - educationally, politically, economically, culturally, technologically - for real change to occur. My shoulder angel wants to believe, but my shoulder devil is struggling to find the confidence. I agree that we are in unprecedented times and it seems the time is riper than ever for real change. But in addition to the factors being in place that are referenced above, I think there are still too many things in the hearts, minds and souls of all the stakeholders that will derail us once again.

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Here are my 13 reasons why education will continue to be challenged when it comes to change:

  1. Our Cultural Definition Of School - A True Learning Organization?
As a culture, we tend to not truly look at school as a place of learning. We want to, we pretend to and we come close to at times. But truly our definition of school, especially high school, is really not about a culture of learning. Ask most parents and students about what their expectation of high school or what they are looking forward to. You’ll get more responses about athletics, co-curricular, extra curricular, dances and so on than you will about real learning. Sure, Don’t get me wrong. I love things that are fun and social. But why can’t our learning be fun and social? Why can’t the learning be so compelling and transformational that it’s all we talk about? Since it’s often not, we use the other things (extra and co-curricular) to do that for us. We cannot continue to design and base our schools on the extra - we have to make the meat the best part. We somehow need to establish with all stakeholders what our purpose is what will take priority. Culturally this will  be difficult as we have allowed school to be defined dozens of ways - and it’s now time to make sure we are truly focused on creating happy, creative, inspired lifelong learners of all students. Anything else or less will not suffice.

  1. Parents
Some parents are aware that schools needs to change. They are aware that world is rapidly changing and school should reflect that. However, too many parents want school to be like what they know and experienced. Saying things like “it worked for me” in regards to homework, discipline, lack of student voice and choice, outdated pedagogy, etc. are not an answer to what our students need to be successful today and especially tomorrow. Parents need to also put learning, real learning, at their top of their school/education agendas (see #1). Parents need to become more informed about the new economy and globalized world in which our students are entering.

  1. Students
It would be so easy to leave students off of this list. Indeed, they are really victims of a system that has not evolved as much as they have...or even the world has. However, the potential for them to have an impact is incredible. Many students are dissatisfied with their school and educational experiences. However, they, like most of us, need to turn complaining/whining into advocacy. It’s their education and their futures, so they should be the most important voice. Students need to learn to intellectually demand what they want or need from their schools. And they need to do this to parents, teachers, administrators, school board members, community leaders and anyone who may listen willingly or not. I think when the majority of students truly demand something better, the tipping point will occur. Indeed, students do have more educational options that ever before. They are also more savvy, connected and capable than ever before. Apathy needs to be converted to Advocacy.

  1. Teachers
Teachers are obviously integral, and maybe the most important, when it’s all said and done in terms of what our schools are truly like. There are many things that have worked against teachers  that have been out of their control - class sizes, bureaucracy, weak leadership, funding, initiative fatigue and more. However, there are things that are in their control, for the most part, that they need to begin to lead. I don’t want to argue for or against teachers’ unions. That being said, it seems that weak, or even criminally negligent teachers, have been allowed to survive. Almost every school in America has a teacher or two that the entire staff knows is bad for kids. But somehow, we have learned to tolerate and accept this. Just like law enforcement, we have to be responsible for our own. We have to collectively and collaboratively address those teachers. They need to get on board or get out. You know who they are and so do they. They give the profession a bad name and we can’t afford that any longer. We need to redefine the role of a teacher and celebrate how wonderful it can be. If we do, maybe more will go into the profession. Teachers need to take charge and become their own curriculum creators, curators and advocates. If they continue to teach to a textbook or test, they can’t help to get what they get.

  1. Administrators
We have been asking our administrators and site leaders to be instructional leaders for several years now. However, too many are not. Too many administrators focus on facilities, discipline, extra curricular, etc. Many are not even interested in curriculum & instruction. Many were not teachers for very long. Many were not distinguished as a teacher at all. Too many are disconnected from professional development, technology, lifelong learning, professional learning networks, modeling and so much more. Despite the poor examples of leadership that we are often seeing in the current political environment, school leaders need to read, study and model themselves after successful 21st century leaders in industry. They need to practice and preach openness, accessibility, flexibility, bottom up approaches, democratization and so much more. Site leaders need to be the living examples of fearlessness, risk taking, innovation, experimentation, early adopters, pioneers and cage rattlers.

  1. Models
In the end, we have few models to look to for in terms of change and inspiration. Yes, they are there. Yes, there are charters, choice schools, magnets and others that are doing many things right. But the dominant model of comprehensive education is outdated. And we tend to perpetuate or clone the outdated model. Most schools are similar more than they are different. It is changing and there more models than there were 20 years ago. Indeed, efforts like the XQ Super School Project ( are steps in the right direction. But we need to see examples across all communities, all districts and ultimately we need to challenge/incentivize one another to create new examples that are truly unique/responsive. We can’t look to higher ed as they are even more behind. Checking out Finland is great, but we need to see more models here in every neighborhood. Every district and community should be creating innovative, unique programs to help individual students and the entire system.

  1. Innovators Go Elsewhere
We might preach innovation and creativity, but we tend to marginalize both teachers and leaders who are ‘pushing the envelope.” Indeed, some of them leave education altogether and many are beaten down to conform. We need to talk less and walk more. If we want innovation and creativity, we not only need to model it, but we need to embrace, chase it and challenge it. Compounded by a national teacher shortage, we’re going to need to redefine the education profession and attract young people who are, by nature and experience, entrepreneurial, innovative, creative, fearless and self-starters.

  1. The Colleges & Universities
Too much of our system, especially our secondary system, takes its marching orders from the colleges and universities. Even though our college graduation, completion and success rates are dismal, they dictate the requirements, expectations and compliance items to our high school. Less than half, in most cases far less, of our high school graduates start go straight to the a university. So why do we have the university dictate our curriculum. Ironically, a large percentage of our higher ed. Instruction is further behind than K-12. Their dominant instructional model is still lecture and note taking - truly the lowest form of learning for students. Since a K-12 education is the expected standard for all, then that should be the priority and design a better system from within. Higher Ed. needs to listen, collaborate and follow a whole lot more.

  1. Compliance
Like so many entities in our systems, we spend more time on compliance that we do on the Four C’s, pedagogy, student relationships, school culture, community connections and so many others. Seems like most things we do in order to deliver a standard, right or expectation ends up becoming its own bureaucracy. Think about Special Education, 504’s, ELL, Accountability, Attendance, Accreditation and so many more. Intentions are good, but implementation and practice become something else. Have we asked our schools to do much? Possibly and probably. But beyond that, what is our focus? What are in the business of doing in school? Until we can all answer the question together, we will focus more on compliance vs. learning. We need to radically simplify oversight, documentation and accountability.

  1. Size

Many of our high schools today have class sizes in the 40’s. Simply, we all know that smaller is better. High Schools with 700 students have different cultures and opportunities than those of 3,000. Classrooms with 25 have a very different culture typically than those with 45. And yes, fixing this is easier said than done. Yes, it may cost more. But the cost of not fixing it is astronomical. If you want all students to be engaged, participating and have effective feedback, then we cannot expect a teacher to facilitate five or more classes of 40+. We know we need personalization, project-based learning, students producing high quality and public work, technology integration, real world applications and community interaction, work-based learning and more. However, if we continue to put 40+ in our high school classrooms, the more we will continue to not deliver on our promises and continue to set up our rooms for lectures and note taking.

  1. The Buildings & Physical Spaces
Remember that our schools were originally designed to be ‘institutions.’ I know that we cannot build entirely new schools everyday. However, we also don’t need to live with buildings and classrooms that haven’t changed in 50 years. Do we need the same old dreary rooms, hallways and offices? How many of us are excited to walk into our school buildings? Are they comfortable and inviting? One, we should invest in our spaces. Two, if we build new schools, we can do them smarter. Instead of building the $200 million high school complex, we could build 15-20 small schools that are unique, specialized and contemporary. There has been a recent focus on classroom design and it’s the right direction. It’s another area where we may want to ask the customer (the students) what works best for them. I can tell you desks in rows are not on the menu.

  1. School Boards
Local control and leadership of our schools is in theory great ideas. Our communities should have the right to create the best and most unique schools. Ironically, most of our schools don’t differ very much. Indeed, too many are just clones or duplicates of schools in their neighboring district. It seems like too many school board members may be there for the wrong reasons. Too many are their for their own political career advancement, own political agendas and pet projects. School board candidates need to be truly unselfish individuals who care about the kids in their community and want to work collectively to have something better, more innovative and more relevant than ever before. Status Quo people can run for church fundraising chair or local lodge leadership, but not for the people who have the fate of our future in their hands.

  1. Our local communities and leaders.
Schools are not going to be the exceptions in our communities. If our communities are disconnected, violent, poverty-stricken, in disrepair or worse, how can we expect our schools to be different or the shining star on the hill? Schools need to engage the larger community in every way and local community leaders/advocates need to engage with the schools diligently.

Hoping The Aforementioned Writer Is Right, Hoping That I’m Wrong

I truly want my shoulder angel to win. I see lots of signs and reasons to be optimistic. But my experience, as well as awareness of the challenges, often give my shoulder devil much to smile about.

(photos courtesy of foter, pixabay, shutterfly, allthefreestock)