Saturday, December 27, 2008

How we dropped our student failure rate by 75%

We set a staff goal to decrease our student course failures by 50%. As the early numbers trickle in, we are on path to reduce the course failures by over 75% from this same time last year. We’re so excited that we wanted to share our success with other schools.

Part of being a principal involves worrying about our students. If we don’t worry we probably should find a different line of work. In terms of academic failure there are always a few names that come quickly to our mind.

Last year’s student support group spent a lot of time worrying. Every week seemed the same. A typical example is as follows: We’d open with a short prayer and then go over the academic failure list. The same names peppered the list every week and the explanation was usually the same. Billy struggles to turn in homework. Sally is a poor test taker and her teacher in that class has the majority of points coming from tests and quizzes. Jake is a good student and talented but doesn’t come to school very often and seems to have a finesse for missing Mondays. I’m sure your school has students similar to Billy, Sally, and Jake. We were great at identifying the issues and giving the warning talk but no changes really took place. Some students fell through the cracks and ended up at the local alternative school. Others fell off the path to on-time graduation and enrolled in the neighboring public school where graduation requirements are not as strict.

Our administrative team resolved to make the 2008-2009 results different. Over the summer we created a plan of action with our leadership team of establishing various student support teams. We divided the students into six groups by alphabet and created six teams consisting of an administrator, a counselor, and two teachers. The teams met a minimum of twice a month and monitored students assigned to their alphabetic group. Each meeting consisted of not only identifying the issue but also the plan for improvement with the requirement that the plan be tied to a measurable goal for improvement. The team would decide which individual member would follow up with the identified student and what the plan of action would be as well as the measurable goal. The teams would follow up in two weeks and if the student hadn’t met the goal, a new course of action would be set. Everything was logged in a google doc that team members could reference.

Here’s an example: In early October Billy presents on the weekly failure list as carrying an F average in two classes: Geometry and English. As the team meets they pull up his grades via our online grade network and see Billy is missing eight of ten homework assignments and is at a 69.5% in English due to a low test grade on the 1st half of “Brave New World” by Huxley. The team decides to set a goal for Billy of completing his missing homework by the next check in period and earning a C or better on the next exam. Billy’s English teacher offers a study session before and after school the day before any test. The teacher assigned to work with Billy goes over the plan and Billy agrees to it (freewill is important). After two weeks Billy has pulled up his English grade but is still failing Geometry and has only turned in two of the missing homework assignments. At the next meeting the team see’s Billy’s status and discusses with Billy and his parents (via phone) that Billy needs to finish the missing homework assignments and can attend morning peer-to-peer tutoring for help. Billy agrees… and on and on.

As the semester went on, the effectiveness of the interventions was tied to the strength of the relationship created between the team and their students. Parents were ecstatic about the help being offered their children. They were also impressed with how well our staff knew their child. Looking for the Friday afternoon’s failure list became an exciting event to see who had made progress and who hadn’t.

These teams also helped build a spirit of fellowship between the various administrators. Friendly competitions and side wagers took place between the various teams as they jockeyed to have the lowest failure rate. But in the end it was the students who benefitted the most. Seeing a student move from the failure list towards their potential is an exciting thing to watch.

What is more astounding is the number of creative collaborative ideas that have come out of these meetings. We are creating mini-courses on test taking skills for those students struggling with tests. We’ve formed a peer-tutoring program. We’re working on a homeroom plan for next year that creates a special study homeroom for students who are failing as well as Saturday homework days for those lagging behind.

I wish we could report 100% success with our student body but there still remains a handful of failures.

Here is a link to the google doc with names removed. link here

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Finding Time for Holistic Education

This week we are featuring our first guest blogger: Mr. Dave Worland from Cathedral High School in Indianapolis.

I am a principal of a Catholic High School with the following Mission Statement.
Cathedral High School Mission
Cathedral, a Catholic college preparatory high school, provides to a diverse group of students opportunities
for spiritual, intellectual, social, emotional and physical growth through service and academic excellence.

I believe that most Catholic schools probably have a similar mission statement.

As principal, I find it challenging to try to fit a holistic education into 180 school days, including Masses, pep assemblies, reconciliation services, prayer services, guest speakers, professional development, and service learning. We have tried combining breaks in the schedule so that if we have one program and a different than normal schedule, we have two events in the same day. This does help us have more undisturbed school days (which keeps the faculty happier), but still leaves me wondering if we are stretching our students too thin.

I have looked at possible solutions (i.e., having more than 180 days), but know that it will be difficult to be a private, Catholic school in today’s economy when we will have to pay the faculty/staff for more days, provide some bus transportation for these days, and perhaps lose some part of the population with such a move.

I am wondering what other schools in similar situations have done.

Here is a link to a survey to help share how your school addresses these issues: link here

How to Identify Great Teaching

What are the qualities that truly set “star” teachers apart from their mediocre or average colleagues? If we could answer the above question accurately and guide teacher development along these lines powerful learning could take place.

Perhaps the single greatest factor in any school’s effectiveness is the quality of instruction that takes place. Well designed backward curriculum, deeply funded technology resources, and sparking state-of the art facilities are all rendered irrelevant by incompetent teachers. Even the much-haled small class size has less of an impact than high quality instructors. I’d place my own children in a room with thirty other students and a great teacher over a room with ten and an average teacher any day of the week.

As principals we are uniquely aware of all the side issues that go along with bad teaching. The constant phone calls, class drops, requests for preferential placement, and disappointed families could all be avoided by having a school filled with only high quality excellent teachers. Sounds dreamy doesn’t it? As principals, we all know when the phone rings and it is a call “not about playing time” that the concern is probably focused around the two or three worst teachers in terms of instructional quality.

Malcolm Gladwell in a recent article for the “New Yorker” comparing quarterbacks, financial traders, and teachers has highlighted one skill that is universally found with all excellent teachers: high quality personal feedback.

The quality of personalized feedback is perhaps the largest single indicator of classroom effectiveness. An example Gladwell sites from a Virginia study is shared below.

"Then there was the superstar—a young high-school math teacher, in jeans and a green polo shirt. “So let’s see,” he began, standing up at the blackboard. “Special right triangles. We’re going to do practice with this, just throwing out ideas.” He drew two triangles. “Label the length of the side, if you can. If you can’t, we’ll all do it.” He was talking and moving quickly, which Pianta said might be interpreted as a bad thing, because this was trigonometry. It wasn’t easy material. But his energy seemed to infect the class. And all the time he offered the promise of help. If you can’t, we’ll all do it. In a corner of the room was a student named Ben, who’d evidently missed a few classes. “See what you can remember, Ben,” the teacher said. Ben was lost. The teacher quickly went to his side: “I’m going to give you a way to get to it.” He made a quick suggestion: “How about that?” Ben went back to work. The teacher slipped over to the student next to Ben, and glanced at her work. “That’s all right!” He went to a third student, then a fourth. Two and a half minutes into the lesson—the length of time it took that subpar teacher to turn on the computer—he had already laid out the problem, checked in with nearly every student in the class, and was back at the blackboard, to take the lesson a step further.

“In a group like this, the standard m.o. would be: he’s at the board, broadcasting to the kids, and has no idea who knows what he’s doing and who doesn’t know,” Pianta said. “But he’s giving individualized feedback. He’s off the charts on feedback.” Pianta and his team watched in awe"

Gladwell goes on to raise the issue of whether teacher prep programs are valid in terms of these skills. The argument of whether good teaching is innate or can be taught is worth taking up. Take a minute or two and read the full article here: link to New Yorker article.

What has been your experience as a principal? What are the key characteristics you find that excellent teachers share? When you hire, how important are formal credentials like certificates and state mandated qualifications? Do you know of any metric to measure the quality of teacher feedback?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Recession Rescue for Schools

As the economic news turns bleaker and bleaker it is probably time Catholic school principals begin looking at budgeting in light of the coming recession. Every school, given their socioeconomic makeup and geographic location will face the coming storm with varying levels of severity. I've been digging into some research into Catholic school enrollments during the Great Depression but have begun to realize the makeup and economics of private schools were radically different then. Our students are not by and large immigrants and few of us operate with 95% religious staff, no technology needs, and no employee health premiums to pay. Therefore comparisons go only so far. I'm hoping those of you who were school administrators during the most recent tech bubble burst and slide in the late 1980's can offer some words of wisdom.

In general i've been discussing these issues with some long standing members of various school finance committees and local principals and we've come up with some general ideas and points of action that may be helpful in weathering the storm. Take them all with a grain of salt because every recession is unique.

1. Evaluate School Foundations and Explore Options for Tapping them in an Appropriate Way: Most Catholic high schools operate with some type of foundation. Usually these foundations manage or oversee the investments of the school's endowment. Earnings are typically applied towards operating costs at a certain rate or earmarked towards financial assistance at many schools. Exploring the nature of your endowment and the willingness of whoever manages it to reexamine its use protocols in light or emergency situations is important. Granted accessing these funds when the market has given them a rather awful beating may not be wise. But if the recession is for a few years it could provide the cash flow needed to prevent major staff cuts.

2. Evaluate and alter R.I.F. policies to give more freedom: Some schools and diocese have reduction in force (RIF) policies some don't. They are often based on seniority. Deciding who to let go is never fun. Although the policies provide some guidance they also raise other issues. Most base cuts off of seniority or religious affiliation. Last one in first one out or sacrifice the non-Catholics first are the usual procedures. Another issue revolves letting go of staff who are already receiving pensions from the public school. Although it could probably be construed as ageism it certainly feels more just to try to keep around those who need the job to survive and feed their families as opposed to the double dip.

3. Freezes and Frills: Freezing or halting contributions to 403 b and defined benefit plans for a year or two is another way to avoid laying off staff. It is fairly easy to calculate your annual savings. Freezing pay for a year or two saves money as well. These decisions of course come loaded with massive negative affect if the direness of the situation is not explained. Most people can go along with the halting of the 403b for a while, suspension of free lunches, and watering down the free coffee in the lounge but let's be fair most of the cost is associated with salaries so the bulk of savings will have to come from there. Going paperless and handing out less chalk isn't going to slash 300 k from anyone's budget. Cutting out "frills" is another way to cut back. Maybe the soccer team wears the same uniform for another year, the parking lot lines fade a bit more, and the roof with a patch is much more cost effective than a new one. Pay freezes across the board also save money but can cause some staff to look for employment elsewhere.

4. Staff Cuts: No easy way around them. Basing the cuts on the least minimal impact to the quality of education is the best way to go. This translates into cuts across departments and administration not just throwing out art and music. Schools need fine arts, PE, and broad curriculum offerings to remain competitive and advance their mission. They need counselors, administrators, and support staff. Spreading the cuts across the whole school at least helps maintain the integrity of the academic programs. It may make you universally hated by the staff but at least the kids suffer the least.

If you have any other ideas please share the with our readers by commenting below.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Employee Benefits and Staff Retention

At a recent budget meeting, our staff came to the realization that our faculty is certainly divided into two camps. Camp one consists of those staff members who have been lifers with twenty to twenty five plus years of service. Camp two are the faculty members with five or fewer years experience. What was staring us right in the face was the lack of the middle group. Where were our faculty in the thirty to fifty year age group with ten to twenty years experience? They seemed to be missing.

We went back and poured over employee records and discovered that a number of faculty seem to disappear in the five to seven years experience range. What we wanted to know was why? As any school or organization knows, to lose top talent and find worthy replacements is a significant obstacle. Faculty with long tenures help shape the culture of the school and contribute to a common experience that graduates remember fondly. These long standing groups often contain seasoned veterans who contribute endless hours towards the school's culture as moderators, coaches, and mentors. Developing their replacements should be of the utmost importance.

We noticed that the exodus of young talented faculty coincided with changes to our benefits plan. Our diocese as many if not all across the country when faced with rising health care costs chose out of necessity to pass a portion of the cost onto employees. Our family monthly premium went from $0 to $467 a month in a matter of three quick years and lead to an exodus of male teachers with young families. Many of these teachers were among the most talented of the staff and filled a large part of our coaching and moderator duties. In addition, our pay sagged to below 70% of the local public school before a diocesan mandated policy to pay 80% of the local public school was enacted. As openings become available each year, our applicant pool continues to consist of newbies right out of college and retiring public school teachers looking for a few more years of employment as they double dip from their public school pension. Some of these retirees are great finds, but many of them are at a place where they have no intention of doing the extra work that goes into running a high school.

As our senior group is set to retire over the next ten years, it is quickly becoming one of our priorities to retain our current crop of young talent and to attract the best of the best from other schools. We are taking for granted that without restructuring our tuition ( a paltry $4,400 a year) we will not be able to reduce health care costs or greatly increase the base pay above the 80% we are required to pay. We are, however, experimenting with a series of "graduated" benefits to push faculty retention that have a smaller impact on the bottom line.

Our plan is basically as follows. To encourage long time faculty retention, the more years someone puts in the better the benefit package becomes. In addition, these benefits are tied to developmental marks in a teacher's career. To clarify, we are just beginning to develop this plan. To encourage families and faculty retention we are exploring the costs of offering on-site greatly discounted child care for the children of our teachers. The average family can expect to pay between $400 to $700 a month in child care at a private day care center. By using our child development class and subsidizing the salary of a full time day care coordinator with the allocation of a significant space for this endeavor, this benefit could greatly increase retention of young faculty. As a young faculty member with a family, paying $100-$200 a month for subsidized high quality on site day care would be a huge advantage especially given the fact that the center's schedule will mirror the schools.

Another factor we have looked at is reducing tuition for our faculty. We currently offer a 50% reduction on our high school tuition. Granted our tuition is already laughably low, but if we can crunch the numbers and offer free tuition for our teachers' children, this benefit would go a long way in stretching the modest salaries and producing goodwill.

For faculty on the older edge, these benefits might not mean that much. For our faculty with 20 to 25 year experience, we are looking at reducing the full course load from six to five sections and adding a higher match to our 403b plan. In addition, we will look at offering free lunch to our faculty. We've also toyed with the idea of adding free babysitting tied to our Christian Service Program.

As with all endeavors there is probably something we are glaringly missing and I am sure our first round of attempts will piss off as many people as it pleases, but thus is the joy of trying something new. A graduated benefits plan while leaving alone the health care and salary issue may at the least increase the quality of life for our faculty and lead to higher retention rates.

Another issue we struggle with is the distinction of who to apply these benefits to. For example, are teachers the ones making the bigger sacrifice? Are our secretaries, bus drivers, and maintenance workers making similar wages to their public school counterparts or not? Should we offer these benefits to them as well? Everyone contributes to the well-being of the school do they not? It takes a village to raise a child.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Attached below is a link to a benefits survey. On the upper left of the web page is a link to the live results as they come in. I am sure many of us face these same issues every day. Maybe collectively we can come up with a world-class plan that minimizes costs and increases happiness. Then again that is pretty idealist but I'd beg to offer that if anyone deserves it our teachers do.

Link to Survey: Faculty Benefit Survey Here

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Reframing Conversations with the Miserable

As principals we all spend a part of each week listening to or hearing from unhappy parents. As long as our schools enroll students we will have the added pleasure of dealing with parents on a consistent basis. Sadly the top jobs at those few high schools meeting the needs of orphans have been filled for years.

To be fair most of us are a little jaded when it comes to interacting with parents. The five percent who are chronically miserable in all areas of their life usually fill up ninety five percent of the parent meetings on our schedule. The truth is that most of our parents are happy well-adjusted individuals with a firm grasp on reality. The Church rightfully declares parents as "the primary educator" and our roll of assisting in their child's development and growth is more often than not a shared blessing. But alas the buck stops with us and so too does the final stop for the unhappy parent.

I'm willing to argue that the large percentage of unhappy parents that make it to your door are usually upset over non-academic or core issues. More likely than not their concerns will have to do with some co-curricular aspect of the school. Little Johnny has been cut from the basketball team, played in the wrong position for the wrong amount of time, or has suffered some other life altering injustice that if uncorrected could ruin his life forever. Some parents just need to be heard and quickly ignored. Others take a little more work to appease.

I'm writing this post to share a concept gained from a recent professional development day that helps reframe these lovely conversations with an eternal lens that honors our rich Catholic heritage.

About a month ago I had the opportunity to sit through a presentation about "happiness" by the Spitzer Center. Our board chair and former fortune 500 exec had arranged for the group to visit our little corner of the midwest and provide a session for local business and civic leaders. I left for the meeting with the usual enthusiasm for a day away from the office during the middle of the school week. The Spitzer Center is the brain child of Father Robert Spitzer S.J. the president of Gonzaga University and mentor for the positive thinking guru Lou Tice.

The session focused on seeking happiness. What was interesting about the session was the retelling of truths that as Catholics we've known for a couple thousand years. Essentially in the end we all want to be happy. As Catholic educators we are drilling this drive for happiness into our children every day mindful of the fact that eternal happiness rests in union with God. There are four levels of happiness. Level one has to do with pleasure. A nice piece of prime rib and a beer on a Friday afternoon are all pleasure giving in their own right but these pleasures are fleeting. Building our life around the accumulation of level one items is doomed for failure if not addiction. Level two has to do with things that are good by comparison. A certain job over another, a house with large square footage, a new car are all good in their own right. But their worth is valued in a large way by being compared to something not as good. To focus on level two items like wealth, power, and position will eventually lead to spiritual emptiness and poverty of soul. Level three happiness has to do with altruism and leaving the world better than we find it and recognizing that our individual gifts are properly expressed in service to others. Level four happiness is the perfect happiness that we are created for which is found eternally with God.

None of the above is new to our faith. Apparently the business world doesn't often grasp the truth of the above statements. Imagine that. But what is potentially exciting and new is reframing parent conversations around these levels. The family concerned about "playing time" or Billy's role in the school play is not helping their child reach level three and level four happiness. They are overvaluing level two and teaching Billy to express his self-worth in ways that will not lead to lasting happiness. Of course getting the conversation to this point is always easier said than done. I like to drop somewhere in the conversation that if, "high school athletics are the highlight of life then life is pretty empty in the end". The timing has to be there of course but usually the sooner I can get it out the better.

I have to believe that the more our students and faculty grasp the meaning and value of the different levels of happiness the more these concerns over perceived injustices will go away. Perhaps a little suffering will lead to a little self growth.

Please share your thoughts below and your own tricks and methods for dealing with difficult conversations.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Off-Campus Jurisdiction and Sanity

Schools are messy places. Balancing the mission of Catholic education with the competing needs and wants of students, parents, and staff is certainly a daunting and heroic task. What makes it even more challenging and exciting is worrying about what happens off of school grounds. How do the off campus activities of our student body effect what we do within our halls? Is it our right and our place to discipline students for actions that take place at events that are not school sponsored?

We all have written drug and alcohol policies. Our past surveys indicate that primarily those policies limit the school's jurisdiction regarding alcohol consumption to school events, incidents that take place en route to school events, or incidents of a public nature in which a police report or ticket is issued. What about other incidents? What about the well intended but often neurotic parent who calls to anonymously report a drinking party over the weekend? Does the school have an obligation to act? What about cyber-bullying that takes place off of campus? Are these problems the domain of the school administrator? Does in loco parentis really apply twenty four hours a day? Do Catholic schools have greater or lesser responsibility than our public counterparts?

Most or our institutions contain clauses embedded in our handbooks that give us the right to discipline students for morally offensive behavior that occurs off campus. We operate on contract law and as such live and die by our handbook for defining the limits and reaches of school authority. In the public world the courts have been mixed in terms of limiting school jurisdiction to the school house gates and granting broad reaching power. In Kusnir vs. Leach 1982 the courts ruled in favor of a college taking disciplinary action against a student for morally inappropriate behavior at an off campus and non school sponsored social event. In terms of free speech courts have trended to allow school intervention only when the off campus event has a negative and substantial impact to the school day (Thomas vs. Board of Education Granville 1979). Events that take place off campus that do not disrupt the school's normal operation involving free speech are considered to be off limits for our public school counterparts. Dr. Scott McCleod of CASTLE provides an excellent summary via this podcast (link here).

I had the privilege a few weeks ago of receiving a lovely phone call on a Monday morning from a parent concerned that parents had allegedly hosted a party over the weekend and provided alcohol to the students. Our school has suffered from a similar incident four years ago in which the offending parent spent time in jail besides paying a hefty and substantial fine. I turned the case over to our school's drug and alcohol preventionist who coordinated the investigation and suspended ten students who the employee determined were involved with the event. We try to avoid anonymous complaints and concerns but given the gravity of the claim found it worth investigating. Our investigation concluded that the accusation of parents providing alcohol was unfounded yet drinking did take place in their home without their complicit knowledge. Our policy is based off a local city ordinance that deems minors who are "knowingly present and choose to remain" as guilty. A number of the students appealed their consequences to the disciplinary committee on the grounds that they were not "knowingly present". They argued in attending that they knew parents were to be present, that a small number of uninvited students brought the alcohol and where then asked to leave and that they did not personally violate the school's code. The majority of the appeals were successful. The students have a right to an appeal and I can live with the results of the process but what it brings to my attention is the question of boundaries?

Students who spend the night at a sleep over and engage in name calling or arguments that are unchristian do not find themselves facing school discipline the following Monday nor should they. The parents of the students are expected to deal with it. Why does bullying that takes place outside the school grounds via the net fit a different category? Why is the party the domain of the school? If parents are the primary educators of their children as CCC 2223 points out where is their obligation in policing and dealing with off campus issues? One can see where cyber-bullying could spill into the normal operation of the school and cause substantial issues with the smooth operation of the school. At the same time we have a moral obligation to keep our students safe and to encourage their moral development.

As a principal how do you decide when and when not to become involved with off campus issues? Do you have any memorable incidents to share? What is the proper balance? How aggressive need a school be regarding off campus issues to protect the moral development of students? What are the pros and cons of being overly aggressive?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Best Practice and School Schedules

What is the best system of scheduling for college prep high schools? It seems the popularity of the block, carnegie, or trimester are often found in clusters of use throughout the country. In my own personal experience I have only taught at or been enrolled in a high school setting utilizing the carnegie unit or eight fifty minute classes per day. My current employer utilizes the carnegie unit and in general the faculty support this scheduling system.

The pros and cons of each system are interesting to consider. A few google searches on the topic turn up some interesting finds. One of interest was a parent lead coalition and website dedicated to reversing the implementation of block scheduling (link here). Their arguments against the 4 X 4 block focused on the lack of continuity in the languages, lower scores on AP testing (certain classes available only in the fall while testing is in the spring), lack of instructional minutes with the block, and teachers continuing to use lecturing as their primary pedagogical tool. Those advocating for block scheduling stress its ability to force differentiated instruction, reduce disciplinary issues, increase lab and hands on learning, while also increasing teacher planning time. Certain types of block schedules utilize alternating A/B days to stretch classes over the entire academic year limiting the risk of spacing and AP examinations.

The typical carnegie unit structure features seven to eight individual units of equal length throughout the day. Some courses are two semesters in length while others are only one semester in duration. The advocates of this structure push time on task and its correlation to learning as well as its ability to better sequence foreign language courses. Critics argue the system reinforces lecture based instruction and forces students to often take seven non related courses at once. Other criticisms point out the amount of time spent in management as a higher percentage of classroom minutes. Taking role and opening closing duties in seven classes is more percentage time than a schedule of four classes.

A growing number of schools are implementing a trimester schedule which in general features a course length of sixty to seventy minutes with five classes in a given day. A traditional two semester class is covered by utilizing two of the three trimesters. Proponents argue the schedule allows a traditional core curriculum to be covered by freeing up time for an array of electives (link here). Problems still arise in this model with the sequencing of foreign languages and scheduling core courses in available slots can be tricky. (What system of scheduling isn't tricky?)

What in general are the common practices among Catholic college prep high schools? Below is a link to a survey about common practices regarding student schedules.

Link to survey here: Link

What are your general thoughts and experiences with these various schedules?

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Debate on Drug Testing

Most private high schools do not face the same level of severity of the problems that often plague our public counterparts. Unfortunately we often do face the problems of student drug use and what to do about it. How do we balance the public good versus the private good of offering the student a chance to make amends while helping to alter behavior, that if unchecked, can lead to the ruin of addiction and despair? There are no easy answers but their are a number of schools taking steps to address the problem of drug use. These steps range from frequent presentation on the dangers of drug use to mandatory drug testing programs for all students.

The Diocese of Peoria, effective nine years ago began a mandatory drug testing program for all students in the Diocese's six high schools. The tests are done at random or on suspicion and involve a hair test giving a 90 day history for a panel of five drugs. Students who test positive above the cut off thresholds face the consequences determined locally by each of the six high schools. Consequence at the six schools range from moderate for first time offenses to expected expulsion for repeated offenses. The possession of drugs on school grounds or the dealing of drugs often faces more immediate and severe consequences.

In my three year experience as an administrator in one of these schools the pros and cons of this program are often debated by students, parents, and staff alike. While students cringe at their inevitable invasion of their so-called privacy most indicate on surveys that the policy at least provides them with an easy out when offered illegal substances. The, "I can't... I attend such and such and we are tested..." has provided many a students with an easy out. The first year's implementation had a negative consequence of a marked number of students transferring out protesting their violation of privacy. Of course one could logically conclude there were other motives for their departure.

In general when a student tests positive the first time they are required to meet with the school administration and their parents and agree to a contract including a mandatory drug assessment, ten hours of additional service hours, and a 28 day social and athletic probation. Depending on the assessment and the level of use a family must agree to a medically recommended treatment plan. A second violation warrants another assessment and treatment plan followed with a 40 day social probation and 365 day athletic probation. A third offense barring some major exceptions brings automatic expulsion.

Faculty debate the consequences for their punitive rather than rehabilitative means. The question of what role athletics provide in encouraging a reform to positive behavior while honoring commitments to peers is often questioned? Is it wise to cut students off from such positive spheres of influence? Is the date consequence irrelevant. Many local schools have students who test positive for drugs sit a percentage of their season rather than a number of days. Each has its pros and cons.

One local principal comments that the drawback of a set day penalty is that it may or may not have any real impact on a student. A baseball player who tests positive for marijuana on the first of October essentially faces no athletic consequence whereas if the consequence was a percentage of the season the punishment would pack more punch?

Perhaps though this debate points towards the larger question of drug use? Should we impose consequences of a criminal nature or should we view drug use as a symptom of a larger moral or psychological problem. We can all argue that normal functioning adults do not need or use illegal drugs. They are often an escape or coping mechanism for a larger emotional problem that is going unaddressed. This approach may seem soft to some but is it more effective at addressing the real issues? The Church is clear on the moral issues involving drug use and the intrinsic moral evil surrounding their illegal distribution.

Our school enrolls roughly 850 students and the positive number of tests each year are often under a dozen. This means that the policy effects less than 1.5% of the population. But even with the small number there are always surprises. I've had students in my office claim the reason they do a certain drug is they knew the school would find out and their parents would finally have to notice them. Hard to believe but true. On the other end I've had parents call and ask if it would be okay for their son to experiment with drugs while in Europe over the summer. Unbelievable I know, but at least they asked.

We've all seen students fall into the trap of drug addiction. We've seen the drug habits of some parents spill upon their children. I find drug testing to be one tool in the battle but struggle with how to match the right consequences to the action. Any thoughts? And please click the survey link below to share your own school's stance on the issue.

Link to survey here: Drug Testing Link

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Finding Balance

Well it's over. Year one as a principal of Catholic high school has come and gone. I was asked the other day at a graduation party, "what was the hardest part of year number one?" I answered, "finding balance." What is it and how do we find it? We have obligations to our students, staff, and of course family. I see the biggest challenge looming ahead as not building new facilities, working with the staff, or raising test scores but rather finding the right balance to work and family that I don't turn crazy?

I'm hoping that many of you who read this have some answers or advice on this topic. The main point of the blog is to share ideas and strategies with one another. I'll share three examples from this past year that push me to the question of boundaries and balance.

I've inherited my position from a hard working single lady who made it a habit to attend as many events as possible. I can't in justice to my family attend as many events as she did. I knew going into the school year that this would more than likely become an issue sooner or later. As a high school administrator there are many people to share this burden with: athletic directors, deans, assistant principal etc. We do a fairly nice job of splitting up the main games and covering all the big rivalries but alas there really is something every night. I tried to make it a goal of seeing every sports team play at least once.

As I attended a certain girls athletic event late in the year a mother came up to see me and commented sarcastically how nice it was to see me at the game. She then went into the little bit that I should really be at more of their games blah, blah, blah. It had been one of those perfect days of unannounced visitors and little fires to put out so I was not feeling very charitable. I responded in an equally sarcastic tone stating, "You are absolutely right. I need to be here more to see your daughter play. Because you know that at the end of my life, as I lay dying my one regret will probably be that i've spent most of these past few evenings with my own children and not watching your daughter play sports." The crowd around us started to chuckle uncontrollably and as predicted the mother stomped angrily away. Another one to put high on the ask list for our new facilities. I should have been more charitable but I couldn't help myself. The setup was just too good.

The second situation had to do with phone calls to my house over the weekend from a parent who apparently needed to speak with a teacher. I had spoken with the family earlier in the week and explained that their child should really take it up with the teacher and learn how to advocate for himself instead of coming strait to the principal. The parents agreed. Apparently they agreed so much that they had to call me at home to ask for a teacher's cell number so their child could call the teacher. I explained kindly that the teacher would probably be more than happy to speak with their child before or after school during the normal work week and is busy during the weekend with their family. They just didn't get it. I now have caller ID.

The third incident deals with vacation. I think I have a pretty generous package of twenty days in addition to the regular breaks that can be taken throughout the year. I ended up taking two days out of the twenty. I'm feeling this could have been a big mistake but it never seemed right to just up and leave when there was work to be done. I'm not a micro manager and the subordinate administrators seem to find no problem taking all of their vacation time. Am I a chump or is this normal for the principal to end up left manning the fort while everyone else is away to play?

I know that many of you have been at this for a much longer time than I have and any advice or help you can give on finding the right balance would be truly helpful. If you feel like sharing some of your own boundary issues by all means please do. I think we all get a little chuckle from them and then instantly think of people in our own schools who fit that bill.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Changing Behavior

As school leaders much of what we are asked to do involves changing human behavior. We are asked to push teachers and staff to embrace best practice. We are asked to find ways to increase student learning and achievement. Essentially we are judged by how effective we are at producing change in the schools we lead. How effective are we at moving some of the stubborn asses we work with towards new behavior?

How then do we go about changing human behavior? A great new book that is climbing its way up the New York Time's bestseller list is titled "Influencer". What is so compelling about this book is its research driven look at numerous instances of how having the courage to address core behaviors and beliefs can lead to substantial change. As most of us begin our summers free of some of the distractions the normal hustle and bustle of school provides we begin planning. We start to ask how can we make the next school year even better? Most of these plans involve changing behavior of staff, students, or parents to be successful.

"Influencer" breaks the elements that change behavior into three groups: personal, social, and structural. The authors relate these points to two demonstrated accomplishments where the ability to change behavior has had profound impacts. The first is the little heard of campaign to eliminate the "Guinea" worm in tropical villages in Africa. The success of this campaign is so profound that this disease is almost entirely eradicated from Africa. No magic pill or forced immunization campaign brought about this change but only an effort to change human behavior. Another powerful example in the book is that of Dr. Silbert and the Delancey Foundation in San Francisco. This organization for years has been rehabilitated those souls lost to chronic crime, violence, and substance abuse into productive, happy, contributing members of society. How do they do it? They change human behavior by addressing three levels of motivation: personal, social, and structural.

The first part deals with personal motivation. Before the change can take place in action it must take place in thought. Thinking must change. One great way to change thinking is by the use of the vicarious story. Reaching the core of flawed or contrary thinking rests with allowing others to see through story why the thinking must change. This provides the internal motivation at the personal level. After this comes the demonstration of why the change is needed and beneficial. In Africa the Guinea worm survived because of poor practices using unfiltered water. Tribal and community leaders were recruited to visit a test village where inhabitants were taught to filter the water using cotton screens. They returned to tell the story of how tribes and villages have defeated the guinea worm. These simply pieces of fabric filtered out the guinea worm larvae from the water. Once ingested these larvae grow to be full size worms which puncture the skin as they leave. Exiting takes weeks to months and is excruciatingly painful.

The second step in changing behavior involves social pressure. Using peer pressure in a good way can help aid with compliance. Leveraging peer opinion and pressure can be a great motivator for change. We all seek the approval of our peer group for our behaviors. Enabling peers to influence one another in a positive way can lead to change. In the Delancey organization living arrangements and rituals are deliberately organized to confront one another on behaviors that are damaging to themselves and as a whole.

The third rests with changing structures. Changing structures deals with how behaviors are recognized and rewarded to increase the desired behavioral change. Careful consideration must be put into place before incentive programs are introduced. The authors recount numerous stories where incentive plans have gone horribly wrong. They also document some situations where incentives worked very well. The authors reference studies at hospitals where the main culprits in spreading germs by not washing hands adequately was actually physicians. A simple incentive plan of starbucks gift cards for those caught properly washing their hands worked wonders for compliance and significantly reduced the number of deaths and illnesses caused by poor hygiene on the part of physicians.

It is interesting to think what applying these strategies to some of our chronic poor-behavior problems might do. What would it look like to apply these three principles to a desired change around student absenteeism or the nuisance of dress code violations?

Let's give it a collective try. A reader of the blog from South Carolina is interested in what school's do to address the issue of students arriving late to school. Let's see what we do and see if the level of effectiveness of individual school programs correlates in anyway to these three principles mentioned above. Please take the time to fill out the survey below.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Does Homework Help or Hurt?

When asked to describe our elementary and secondary educational experiences as a student most of us describe certain teachers and remember certain events. We can all tell humorous stories of the remember when so and so variety. We also remember our successes and failures. When pushed we can even remember the more unpleasant parts of formalized education such as grades and homework.

Remember homework? Those joyful minutes spent filling out worksheets, memorizing spelling words, and cramming for tests? Where did the concept of homework come from? What is the purpose of homework? The issue of homework is heating up in the public debate.

This is not the first time our culture has debated the pros and cons of homework. The assigning of homework has caused various reactions throughout our collective educational history. Homework has been banned by a number of various bodies in our history. In the 1880'a a retired civil war general led a crusade in Boston's public schools to eliminate homework due to its damaging effect upon family life. The brave general argued repeatedly that kids just needed the chance to be kids. California followed suit in 1901with the state legislature banning homework and limiting it significantly at the high school level. The argument once again was homework's negative toll on home life and a perceived injustice is saddling young people with hours of work to complete upon their return from school.

Never doubt that one floating piece of space junk can have a profound influence on your life. When the Soviets launched Sputnik we went into fear mode. This floating piece of tin garbage pushed education in the States into overdrive. With fears that America was being out performed by her mortal enemy the blame had to fall somewhere. As usual the public school system became the whipping boy for all real and perceived social failings. Schools needed to be more rigorous if we were to win the space race and keep the Russians in their proper place. This ushered in the remarkable return of homework to American schools.

Does homework help and increase student learning or is it just mindless busy work that drives the joy out of learning while providing fodder for explosive arguments at home? Why do teachers give homework? Most teachers when pushed will advocate for homework along the lines that it reinforces the lessons in the classroom and leads to greater retention of facts. One might ask why in the 21st century are we equating learning with retention. As Einstein noted decades ago, "Why memorize what you can reference." Teachers often cite homework as a way to create a buffer for students with low test scores. Specifically in the secondary level these homework points that can often account for between 10-70% of the total point value for any course. As administrators we realize this buffering pillow often becomes one that can suffocate students of high intellect and creativity but low responsibility. How many F's and D's are directly related to missing homework assignments? I would argue (without any real evidence) that the majority of D's and F's awarded in high school are directly tied to missing homework? Some buffer.

Are our students better off with homework? The research in inconclusive at best with some slight correlation with improved grades. In general homework's impact on elementary and middle school performance is non-existent with only slight benefits being found amongst high school students. Alife Kohn writes extensively about these returns in his work "The Homework Myth". Kohn connects the proposed benefits of time spent with homework to the now debunked behaviorism of the 1940's.

Homework at the secondary level is a mixed bag. Some assignments seem necessary if anything productive is going to happen in class. Take an American literature class for example. If students are going to have a meaningful and engaged discussion about the themes of "The Grapes of Wrath" having read the novel or prerequisite chapters before class would be most helpful. Writing a paper cannot be done entirely in class either. Some tasks seem to necessitate out of school time being devoted to them. On the other hands mind numbing worksheets and spending hours doing repetitive problems that won't be checked or met with any meaningful feedback seems pointless. At best students drudge through them and at their worst sit clustered in morning (or mourning) groups before exchanging and copying the work. Sounds like a stimulating learning environment doesn't it?

With teacher preparation programs only providing cursory looks at how to assign and what to do with homework it is often left to individual school's to set policies or provide parameters. Teaching in secondary schools often remains an isolated task with individual instructors pursuing varied practices. How do we push for best practice regarding homework? What is best practice regarding homework? Are there general guidelines schools should require teachers to work with when assigning homework? Should it be voluntary? Should it be open ended and creative? Should it always be graded? Are our schools assigning too much?

Below are a couple of interesting videos regarding homework. One if a student produced tribute to the joys of homework while the other is from the author of a Wall Street Journal piece on homework that is reigniting the discussion on homework.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Catholic Schools and homeschooling?

What relationship is appropriate for the local Catholic high school to have with the homeschooling community? Current events spur my interest in the topic. My school's past administrator allowed home schooled children to participate in athletics and co-curricular activities if they attended for one period (at least religion) and paid partial tuition. These students were then able to participate on athletic teams that did not have cut policies.

Throughout this school year a number of families have raised issue with the eligibility of these students. To complicate matters this policy runs afoul of our state high school athletic association which requires students to attend for at least twenty credit hours a week or for the local school to approve and verify that twenty hours of instruction are taking place at each home these students are coming from.

Our school leadership team debated the issue and decided to adjust the practice for coming years by stating clearly that athletics and co-curricular activities are viewed as extension of our school day and are reserved for fully enrolled students. The basic premise of the school's position is that it is an all or nothing deal. Families should not view the Catholic high school as a salad bar where if one wants they can choose athletics and reject all the other offerings. The school's leadership team also articulated a justice issue when it comes to determining athletic eligibility. Not all students are being treated in a fair manner or are held to the same standard. This of course has lead to a rather energetic reaction by the local homeschool community that views the change as a horrible loss.

I've met with a handful of families about the issue and fielded a large number of anticipated phone calls. The argument from the home schoolers can basically be articulated in the following way. These families contribute to their parishes, the parishes help sponsor the high school, therefore they should be able to participate as they please. I understand the merits of this argument but I don't think it holds much weight. I've had families say directly to me that they can do a better job at home but need us to provide the athletic opportunity. Talk about being used. I understand the parish argument but then again doesn't the Church by sponsoring a Catholic school say that this is the primary way we choose to offer Catholic education? Then again the subsidy only accounts for 10% of the operating expenses.

Where are other schools at with this issue? What am I missing? Choices have consequences. Homeschooling has some tremendous benefits in terms of contact time and freedom, but every choice has its drawback. Am I missing something? Is my school being "petty" and narrow minded?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Early Exams? To grant or not to grant?

One of the joys of May besides the full array of culminating events that dot our calendars is the incessant parade of families requesting early exams for various reasons. There are the families who seem to be illiterate when reading calendars. Or then again there is the family who just couldn't resist the off peak rental on some chalet in Aspen. Why the school is expected to cater to these needs I don't really understand. I don't think I ever will. My family didn't operate that way.

But how do we walk the line between customer service and enforcing the rules? Our leadership team was debating adding a policy that would allow students to make them up after exams with a monetary cost per exam. Our superintendent shot down the whole concept as catering to sloth so we dropped it. I have much respect for him and philosophically agree but I can't drop the idea that it seems schools must be trying to find some type of middle ground. Please fill out the survey below so we can see what the general trends are.

I can see the wisdom of both points of view. The oh so sad to bad crowd that just awards zeroes does protect the integrity of the exam and its importance. The half way crowd with fines for early exams seems to avoid the dreaded zero while still allowing for the family who feels the need to act special.

One issue also is who is responsible for the decision. Often times students are at the mercy of decisions made by parents who may or may not care as much about exams as their children. I am sure we all practice mercy in terms of extreme circumstances.

Click below to take the survey. Results will be shared in next week's post.


Sunday, May 4, 2008

Grades, grades, and more grades!

Have you ever wondered where the concept of letter grading came from? Do you ever find yourself asking why you do it? Do grades kill creativity? Do grades stifle learning? I've started to ponder these questions as we enter into the annual rush to graduation. Our awards ceremony is looming close at hand. Don't get me wrong, these students are deserving of all the ribbons and accolades we can heap upon them, but in the end does the struggle for the 4.67876 over the 4.67776 really matter? Does the competition for grades get in the way of learning? Are students better off and the cause of learning best served by blowing up the current grading system?

The Beginning: Have you ever heard of William Farish? Grades first entered the educational system with the industrial revolution. Prior to this time, education consisted mostly of students in small groups working with mentor teachers. The quality of the education was tied largely to a teacher's ability to pass on skill and knowledge to this small group of students.

The industrial revolution and the shift from rural to urban life brought large changes to society. One such change was the transformation of the traditional pedagogical approaches of education to one that could serve mass numbers of students in an efficient manner. Enter William Farish. A tutor at Cambridge, Farish came to realize that the more students the school could enroll with fewer instructors, the more revenue each instructor could potentially receive. Farish's adoption of "grading" from factories where products were "graded" into the classroom made it possible for teachers to see greater and greater numbers of students each day. For most schools this process of grading remains.

A better way: Is there a better way? How would Catholic high schools and schools in general operate if grades where not part of the academic day? It is a startling proposal in many ways but one in which education and all its faults might find a new source of creativity. Would it work? Would student learning flourish? Would cheating come to an end? A recent exit survey with our own senior class found that 50% of students see cheating as a major problem. The percentage goes to 75% when we adjust for those tracked in the honors classes.

We all sense the profound shift education would undergo if these practices were changed. The remnants of the industrial revolution keep a strong strangle hold over secondary education. In many places my school included we suffer along with an industrial carnegie model for classes with an agrarian schedule.

Are the Critics right? Critics of abandoning grading argue that grades lead to motivation, colleges demand such grades, and that the whole concept of assessment would need to be rethought. These critics raise valuable points. Alfie Kohn takes a few shots at the critics here. Granted, the work of Mr. Kohn is rather radical but it is certainly thought provoking.

Catholic World-View and Grading: Being schools driven by the Catholic world-view brings forth even more issues regarding these practices. Is grading compatible with our world view? How would Jesus (the great teacher) have graded the Apostles? An interesting question never the less.

To help gather some info on our current grading practices, please take time to fill out the grading survey: Survey Here

History of William Farish

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Cell Phones in the Classroom?

To ban or not to ban? Whether it is nobler in the end to embrace the cell phone as a learning tool or banish it to the locker where it can safely sit untill the end of the day. Every school seems to tackle these issues in different ways. Some schools ban even the presence of the cell phone, while some choose a path more geared towards managing their presence. For example, some schools allow students to use cell phones during lunch but they must remain out of site and off during the rest of the day. Like many issues, there is no cookie cutter solution to the problem.

What about viewing phones as a learning tool? Do they have a use in the classroom? There is a growing number of educators who are using phones as a learning tool. Below are a few ideas. Before we start, a great resource on the topic is the blog of Liz Kolb, a PhD student at the University of Michigan. Her blog cell phones in learning is a true treasure.

Let's look at the value of five simple tools and their classroom applications:, Gcast, Chacha, Google, and Jott. These powerful tools are all free of cost and I'd bet almost every student in your class knows how to use them already. Drop allows students to store and save digital media that they've captured with their phone. A student takes a picture or a short video clip with their phone and then sends it to their drop box. Sharing the url allows anyone from the class to access the drop. Applications? Think about a group of students on a field trip with the end project of making an album of their learning experience on the trip. Another use would be projects involving interviewing various people. Students could take a pic of their interviewee, record the audio on their phone using a tool I'll share later, and Drop it all in the same place for sharing.

Gcast: Good and bad with this one but if used well it replaces the need for a digital recorder. Gcast offers free accounts where you can register your phone and then record audio directly in digital form as a podcast that can be shared if desired. Students with unlimited minute phone plans could easily use their phone to record classroom lectures. If we allow digital recorders why not the phone? Interview applications would also apply. Some teachers might fear being recorded but come on, is there anything in that classroom that shouldn't be recorded? We certainly hope not.

Chacha: All I can say about Chacha is Wow! Chacha, founded in Indianapolis, adds the power of web searches with the intelligence of people. You can search Chacha on the web but you can also use your phone to call 1-800-2chacha and ask a question. Chacha records the question emails your audio file to a chacha agent who searches the web for you and texts you an answer. It takes a minute or two but it is all free and amazingly accurate. Imagine students using their phones to look up answers in class. If you don't do anything else today, use your cell phone right now and ask Chacha a question.

Google: Everyone knows of google as a powerful search engine but you can also register your phone with google and send text message questions to google and google will text you back again for free with the answer. Pretty cool and usually a little quicker than chacha but usually not the same quality answer.

Jott: Jott has many applications. Jott essentially records a voice call from your phone converts it to a text message and emails and sends a test message to the number of many people you designate. One growing use of Jott is communicating homework assignments. A teacher can program all her students in a Jott list and call it 3rd hour Math. She or a designated student can call Jott and record the homework each day. You can even add parent emails to the list and make sure they are notified as well. Our coaches have taken an affinity to Jott for communicating with their teams quickly. Our girls soccer coach uses Jott to communicate new practice times and unexpected changes. Pretty cool!

Below is a survey for your school's current policy regarding cell phones. Please click below to help us share our current practices. In next week's post I'll share the results.

Cell Phone Survey

Monday, April 21, 2008

Unleashing the Power of TED

All of us have seen presentations that dull our intellect and shorten our lives. We cope and endure often times by giving the occasional head nod and then staring at the floor believing that in this case your closed eyelids might be construed as concentration. I hope we've all also had the opposite experience. It can actually happen. I've stumbled across something interesting that you might have already heard of but I find completely addicting and it is called TED. It is just one more little example of how technology can alter the classroom experiences are students experience.

What is TED? The better question is what isn't TED. TED is an annual conference held in Monterey California that focuses on Technology, Entertainment, and Design. TED was founded by Richard Saul Wurman and Harry Marks in 1984 with the intention and mission of sharing "ideas worth spreading".

To be asked to be a TED presenter is a very prestigious honor. TED's philosophy is that every idea worth sharing should be able to be explained in under 18 minutes. Why am I sharing all of this with you? TED's main focus in on sharing ideas which is what we do in education. TED's website contains 18-minute presentations on thousands of different topics. You can search by subject or presenter. No more need to pay the $6,000 annual membership fee to TED to attend the conference. To be fair many of the archived videos have only sound. You can find the author and then search for them on and thanks to other nerds like me they've been copied and posted there for you to use with your students.

TED talks are available in a wide array of topics and you can find many that have direct links with what we are doing in our classrooms. The videos make great discussion starters for a variety of classes.

I've posted an example of a couple of TED talks below. One is an incredible "mathmagica" deal and the other is a presentation on whether or not education as we know it kills creativity. It's interesting to say the least and the speaker is British which makes the audio even more fun to hear.

How could you use TED in class? How could you use TED as part of homework assignments? Could we run our own TED-like conference with students competing to share their ideas? Imagine connecting our various high schools through our own TED like seminar live on USTREA. Lots of creative potential from TED. Give it a look and share your thoughts.

ARthur Benjamin: Lightning calculations and other "Mathemagic"

Ken Robinson "Do Schoools Today Kill Creativity?"

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Intervention Strategies That Work

This post begins the conversation on intervention strategies for underperforming students. What are some ideas for increasing attendance and performance in those at risk students that we all have in our buildings? Below are some ideas we've stumbled upon and would like to share. We know there are many other ideas out there as well. If you would like to share please comment below.

Dealing with Struggling Students
A large percentage of our time is spent dealing with issues surrounding those students who don't seem to fit with the program. We are all familiar with and can probably name a dozen or so students whose inability to attend school on a regular basis, turn in adequate amounts of work, and just get along put them at risk for failure. We come up with different strategies to help these students but many schools still operate with a system whose safety nets are only used once failure has been established: notification to parents of only D's and F's or taking away athletic privileges once a student has failed. Often times teachers compound the problem and take no accountability for student failure by viewing their job as the great dispenser of content specific knowledge. Below are some of the many strategies that effective schools are implementing to help address underperforming students. As administrators we can ignore the problem and continue to operate schools focused on teaching instead of student learning or we can advocate and create programs to help all students learn. In the end it always comes back to us and the direction we choose to pursue.

Early Intervention - An ounce of Prevention
Many schools try to address the problem by being proactive with their incoming Freshmen class. Once enrollment is determined for the coming school year, schools choose to survey teachers and parents of the incoming class to identify those students who struggle with chronic absenteeism, a lack of study/test taking skills, and display a strong tendency to not turn in work. These students are invited to summer sessions on the various aspects of high school life. Students are treated in a respectful way and provided with strategies to make their transition to high school effective. In certain circumstances attendance and homework contracts are often agreed upon before a student ever enters high school. School counselors or support teams armed with the knowledge of which students need monitoring begin tracking from day one attendance rates as well as missing assignment rates. These early interventions go a long way in preventing students from falling into a path for academic failure.

Homework, homework, homework
When many of us field calls from concerned parents, at the core of much of the academic failure is the inability or lack of effort students show with homework assignments. The problem is compounded by teachers who dictate individual policies that award no credit for late or missing work. Take a look at your own failure lists and see how many of those students currently failing a class are failing because of missing or late work. Don't be surprised if that number is over 95%. So what can we do? What strategies can we use to increase the rate of homework?

Every school hopefully engages in dialogue over the meaning of homework. Teachers utilizing best practice are not assigning mountains of busy work in which they have no intention of grading. If homework assignments are engaging and authentic, the rate of compliance goes drastically up. Presuming this is already the case (I know this is a big presumption) what can we do? We know our teachers hound and our counselors sit these young people down and explain what will happen if this continues. Does this work? Does the rate of homework compliance go up after these meetings or is it more of the same? Odds are these students have heard the same speech over and over to no avail.

One interesting strategy involves setting concrete goals for homework compliance rate and to couple that goal with a parent contract. As Catholics, we believe parents are the primary educator of their child. One effective strategy we've seen is for an academic counselor to sit down with a family and students and enter into the following type of agreement. Mom and dad agree to suspend driving and phone privileges until student x's homework compliance rate climbs from 50% to 95%. Once the rate is maintained for a few weeks privileges are restored. Yes, this is not a pleasant experience for student x, but if we are serious about helping this student achieve it can be very powerful.

Attendance, attendance, attendance
Ever deal with that handful of students whose parents seem to chronically call their child in absent. The family claims to value education and appreciate school but for some reason little Susie can only make it three out of five days. Every situation is unique and some students do legitimately struggle with serious emotional or physical health conditions that limit their ability to attend daily. On the other hand we all can probably name those students right now that do not fit this bill. An effective strategy can be to keep open the possibility of attendance contracts if student attendance falls below a predetermined rate. Monitor attendance monthly with an attendance committee. Once again, if a student demonstrates a problem, the school can partner with the family to come up with a creative incentive-based contract to help with compliance. Leaving the door open to student specific interventions can be a powerful tool. The star baseball player that can't seem to make it to school in the Fall is highly motivated when ineligibility for baseball is a reality. The senior with a lenient parent who wants to enjoy the nice weather will not look kindly upon missing prom.

The other game is the reward game. Students with a great attendance rate receive certain benefits like being waived from finals or being granted open lunch privileges or other such increased freedoms. Every school is unique and every school has its own set of issues with their chronically absent students. The one sure thing is that doing nothing will not bring different results.

Too Little Too Late
So what do you do if it's April and a junior named Billy is academically failing four classes? More of the same probably isn't going to work. Maybe the student will pull it out in the end. Maybe a sappy teacher or two will reach into their heart and pull out the old miracle mercy pass. But then again maybe not. Some schools have had good results with the "slash and capture" strategy. This involves dropping the class the student is least likely to pass to provide a supervised study period where the student can focus daily on making up missing work. If a student is carrying a 50% in junior spanish and can't make it why prolong the agony? Withdraw pass and put them in an environment where they can be successful.

A similar strategy is "homework amnesty days". I'm not too big on this one personally because it has to be a surprise to be effective and should be practiced on a student by student basis. It works by a students various teachers agreeing to give credit for all late work if it is turned in on a set date. Mom, dad, and student are made aware of the deal and the ball is in their court. Works for many a student.

Using Data to Assess Effectiveness
The best way to know if what you are doing is working is to use data. After the intervention is in place does the rate of absenteeism go down? Does homework compliance increase? Do grades rise? You can only tell if you measure the baseline date first. If the intervention isn't working it's time to try something more drastic.

The Big Shift
Most of these interventions are a shift in thinking from teaching focused models to a focus on student learning. Teachers need to accept the premise that they are there to facilitate student learning not create automatic systems that are easy for them. How many teachers who refuse to accept late work or provide some type of penalty do so because it is easier for them? How many of these same teachers would appreciate the administrator who refuses to sign an employment agreement with them for the next school year because they turn it in two minutes too late. It would be a fun game to play. Most of us want to be treated in a reasonable way. Our students deserve the same.

The movie below is a classic that explains the dilemma we all face. I'm not sure who I side with but I love the dialogue. I think you'll recognize it.

Pictures from Flickr and Flickr.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Catholic Conscience in the Conceptual Age

This post is a follow up to last week's post about the coming conceptual age. It aims to spark the conversation about our Catholic obligations in the coming age.

As globalization knocks down borders consumers are left with more and more options. Prices are lower and variety abounds. A weekend jaunt to an area megastore such as Walmart is the only field trip one needs to see what variety globalization has brought. As Catholic educators what roll do we play in preparing our next generation to contribute to our American culture? What moral and ethical questions does globalization raise that Catholic education should address?

When purchasing a cup of coffee we have a variety of choices. We can go with a homemade brew of our favorite brand. We can roll through a Dunkin Donuts for a cup of their smooth Arabica bean blend. Or we can visit the neighborhood Starbucks for some scalding hot rich Robusta flavor. For those of us who have been lucky enough to travel abroad we realize that most of the world wakes up to horrible instant coffee in the form of Nescafe.

How many of us put much though into what we buy and how we make purchases. Does our Catholic conscience weigh on our choice? Do we purchase the product from a company that is "socially responsible" who guarantees a fair trade price or do we hunt for the bargain basement price?

Many of these questions are tied to Catholic teachings on social justice. These teachings arise out of many papal encyclicals and have come to be summarized in the following seven themes: 1. Sanctity of human life and the dignity of the person 2. Call to family, community, and participation 3. Rights and responsibilities 4. Preferential option for the poor and vulnerable 5. Dignity of work and the rights of workers 6. Solidarity and 7. Stewardship and care for God's creation. Taken as a whole the propose a beautiful view of the human person and human society. Embracing them is where the rubber meets the road in terms of putting our faith into action in the modern world.

As faith leaders in our buildings we have an obligation to ensure that these teachings are taught and put into practice. We have an obligation to model them for our students. We live in complicated times and putting these seven principles into action is often a formidable task.

Like many high schools we address these issues within out theology curriculums. But are we addressing these issues across the curriculum> Do our economics teachers understand Catholic teachings on free markets and fair trade? Do our history teachers and those who teach current events frame the discussion in terms of the principles above? As administrators do we live these principles in the choices we make? Where do our school uniforms come from? Do we use candy bar sales as a fund raiser without knowing the origin of the chocolate? What products do we sell our students? How are our school endowments invested? Are there screens in place? Or should we bother? Does worrying about all of this just make us neurotic?

I don't have all the answers but If we can start the dialogue on these issues I think we could all share good ideas with one another. One idea our school will begin implementing next fall is a fair trade coffee bar for our students in the morning. Working with our friends at Catholic Relief Services through their "fair trade" distributorships we will be providing coffee to our staff and students at reasonable prices. By purchasing the beans directly from CRS assisted cooperatives we will be helping to guarantee fair trade prices while raising consciousness about social justice issues.

Pictures courtesy of Flickr

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Education for the Conceptual Age

The following article is a summation of Daniel Pink's work "A Whole New Mind" and its potential impact on changing our education systems to meet the needs of the conceptual age our students will face.

Many of us had the opportunity to attend the recent NCEA conference in Indianapolis and hear Thursday's keynote speaker Daniel Pink author of the best selling book "A Whole New Mind". Pink's work pushes us towards self reflection as school administrators. What are we doing to address the changing world? How are we addressing the flattening of the world documented in such works as Friedman's "The World is Flat"? Are we holding our teachers and staff accountable for teaching relevant curriculum? Are we collectively pushing our school's to develop right brain creative contextual thinking? In many ways our American education system seems to be stuck in the past in terms of structure, pedagogy, and goals. As Catholic schools we have the freedom to recreate our pedagogy while staying focused on the Gospel message.

Let's take a look at Pink's basic premise. "A Whole New Mind" argues persuasively that the three forces of abundance, Asia, and automation are substantially altering the playing field our graduates will face. Our material abundance is greater than ever. We own our own homes, possess multiple automobiles, and generally live pleasant middle class lives. Ironically this abundance leads to a spiritual awakening as the emptiness of things taints our post-modern lives. The rise of Asia as an economic superpower and the outsourcing of menial tasks has shifted our economy away from the industrial and eveninformation age to a conceptual age where different skills matter. Automation coupled with technology and powerful software has rendered many safe middle class jobs as on deck for outsourcing and off-shoring. For example products such as turbo-tax and online legal forms are narrowing the need for an entire class of workers.

In this changing world, Pink argues six new traits or skills will become invaluable. These are: design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning. Let's look briefly at each.

Design provides the competitive edge. Pink provides the example of a toilet brush. The technology used in toilet brush design is the same. Without a forward leap in technology design now distinguishes a product. Design can create a desire for a product. Pink gives the example of the toilet brush industry soliciting the work of top designers. Another example is Apple with the iphone. Many other phones do the same things the iphone does and sell for half the price but Apple's commitment to design helps create a huge desire for their product. The iphone is just cool.

The ability to share a story and communicate will be a powerful global skill. The ability to communicate mission and purpose in a powerful way helps provide context and uniqueness to a product. The story of an organization is a compelling part of a group's ethos. This story creates attraction for the mission of an organization. Pink's chapter on story is chalked full of powerful examples of the power of story telling. How many of us have witnessed outstanding teachers who have the gift of story? These teachers are the natural sages of the stage that powerfully reach their audience. Not everyone who graces our classrooms but those who have the gift of story powerfully impact learning.

Symphony or the ability to think abstractly regarding the entire context will become an important skill in the global economy. How do we overcome the fragmentation of our industrial model of education to help students see connections? Why do many of us fail to pair a subject like American Literature with the study of American History to help draw out meaning and to see relationships? The industrial model of station to station learning and the fragmentation caused by current scheduling models is often blamed for the lack of engagement in American secondary education.

Empathy. My wife claims I am empathically challenged and she may be right. I'm a left brain person but the ability to see someone else's point of view and to work collaboratively is certainly an incredibly valuable skill we hope to find in our employees. We all know of that special employee or teacher whose lack of empathy and ability to collaborate stifles organizational change and creates so many pleasant phone calls. How valuable is empathy? Do we look for it as we hire new employees?

Play. The ability to laugh and to see things through in a humorous way will become increasingly valuable. I couldn't agree more. Humor and play with the ability to take enjoyment out of our work will certainly help us face the massive transitions that are coming our way and to embrace necessary change.

Meaning. This echoes Pink's theme from earlier. With our material needs being met how do we make sense of the world? Man's search for meaning and the answers to the core questions of meaning will begin to animate our discussions. Catholic schools are uniquely poised to play a pivotal role in these discussions. Our world view provides meaning and purpose.

So how do we teach these six skills of design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning? How do we guide our curriculum to address these skills? Pink argues for more fine arts as they push right brain contextual thinking? I know our school is currently in the process of discussing fine arts requirements for graduation.

In the end the burden of pushing for change falls on our shoulders. It is one task we can't delegate away. To steal from Pink, "Our schools need to educate our children for their future not our past". It is sometimes scary to think of the future because we just don't know what it will bring. I think we can all agree graduating students who understand their Christian dignity and mission coupled with the six skills mentioned above will certainly make the world a better place.

All of us are at different places in this process. Part of the purpose of the blog is to share our successes so we can be good thieves of one another.

What is your school doing to address globalization?
What strategies does your school use to promote right brain thinking?
How do you push these items with your teachers and staff?

Images courtesy of Flickr: