Saturday, April 30, 2011

Strengths Finder

Do you have a language to talk about your strengths? I'm not talking about how you're a "hard worker" or "good with people." No, see, that's what everyone says. If you think about it, the traditional terms and expressions used to describe personal strengths rarely do them justice. You may be a hard worker sometimes, but aren't there times--perhaps in a spreadsheet, an email, or a whole project--when its just impossible to get started? What about "good with people"? Please--as extroverted as you might be, there are just times when your people skills fall short, whether through a lack of empathy, patience, communication skills, or leadership.

So how should we understand and talk about our strengths? And why does it matter whether or not we do?

Understanding our strengths dramatically affects everything we do.

Why? The most basic essence of our functioning in society, the bar that we measure ourselves against, the elusive, ill-defined, stress-inducing phenomenon we call success hinges on our strengths. The problem is that we--students and teachers (both which we all are at different times both in and outside of school, see 4/24 post)--don't really know how to individualize our paths or goals optimally. We want to be bankers or doctors, artists or athletes, yet what kind? What innate propensities will make us good in these fields? How should we be positioned on a team? What kinds of tasks are we most likely to regularly struggle with, as opposed to those which we will consistently perform well on?

The Clifton Strengths Finder tool is one of the most powerful modern tools to help us define ourselves. It's a little like Myers-Briggs, except that, as a framework, it more readily applies to a range of personal and professional pursuits. Whether it's goal setting, team building, cover letter writing, or critical decision making, results from Strengths Finder offer a language that reveals the common threads of success throughout a range of activities over time.  I'll let you read their marketing about how it was created and how it exactly it works; instead of going into that, allow me to share with you one of the most powerful examples of how the Strength Finder changed my path.

I first took the Strength Finder test in 2006 and learned that my strengths were: strategy, input, learner, woo and futurist. After examining the meaning of these strength patterns, I reflected on the threads of success woven throughout my past. As the trends emerged, presenting a narrative of my historical successes (and failures) suddenly had unprecedented coherence and meaning. Not only could I then apply this to teamwork and leadership situations: I could use it to market myself.

And market I did. Here is an excerpt from my Teach for America application cover letter, written in February 2007:
As a potential TFA corps member I possess a few key strengths. First is my ardent desire and capacity to learn. As evidence I graduated with departmental Honors from Haverford College and after achieving near fluency in Spanish I have recently began the independent study of Chinese. Thus the extensive new learning TFA requires not only suits my strength—it attracts me like a magnet. Secondly I have an innate ease with people. In college I played important behind-the-scenes and leadership roles on committees, all which led to successful organizational re-structuring, fundraising and event planning. I have also navigated foreign cultures far beyond the range of a tourist, having visited 20 foreign countries and worked or studied in five. My ease with people will allow me to effectively work with parents, students, co-workers and superiors. I am also disciplined, seek innovative solutions and set high standards, all strengths that have brought me success academically and in my extra-curricular endeavors. Finally I have a unique contextual background of travel, education and volunteer service that help me understand the cycle of poverty and the complexity of pedagogical and human development questions.
In this portion of the letter, you will see that I didn't exclusively focus on the strengths highlighted from my 2006 test results. However, I do have a coherent framework for organizing my past successes not around categories like "education" and "work experience" or vague skills like "technology" or "detail-oriented." Instead, a unique constellation of personality traits that can support success in various settings emerges with the results of the Strengths Finder. You'll notice above the "learner" and "input" traits (a skill and desire to learn combined with an ability to take in lots of information) mixed with some "woo" (I like to meet new and different people), and a dabbling of "strategy." I held off on "futurist."

After joining Teach for America, I continued to refer back to my Strengths Finder results to decide what projects to take on or leave aside and how to position myself on a team. I've also used Strengths Finder to clarify my leadership style and envision my career path; I'd venture to say that I'd be much less secure in both without the language from Clifton.

While it may not be cutting edge brain science, there is an abundance of research that recommends this process. From my personal experience, I do too.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Bill Mckibben and Climate Change

"Very few people can ever say that they are in the single most important place they could possibly be doing the single most important thing they could possibly be doing." --Bill McKibben

Can you say this? Can I? If our education system is not responding deeply and powerfully to the reality of climate change, then our education system is not working. In our reevaluation of what we do in our education system--curriculum, resources, pedagogy, and discipline to name few--let us put climate change center stage. It is urgent. It is crucial. 

Watch Bill Mckibben's speech from April 16th (it's only 15 minutes). He is the founder of, the advocacy group doing some of the most important work of our time. How can we take these ideas, these truths, and merge them with the education reform movement? What happens if we don't? 

Sunday, April 24, 2011

We Are All Teachers, We Are All Students

When was the last time you taught someone something? When was the last time you learned something?

In all likelihood, neither instance was in school (unless, perhaps, your primary identity is "Teacher" or "Student"). Hopefully it was more recently, perhaps you learned something earlier today from the TV, radio, newspaper, talking to a friend, or this blog? Did you explain your job or a project you are doing to a co-worker or family member earlier today? Did you post a link on your facebook page? 

Each of these actions are educational actions. We teach all the time: we teach that we are caring when we write a text or email to a friend who isn't feeling well. We teach those around us that we are careless about our environment when we litter, leave on the lights or idle our engine. We teach people bits and pieces about art, money, trust, technology and customs just with our brief interactions and common routines. Many of the lessons we teach and learn are subtle and we probably don't recognize the constance of the educational process. However, that process is constant: it is part of acculturation. 

I've come to realize and seek to articulate that this blog is using a broader definition of education than what is commonly understood. We're not just talking about schools here, folks (the blog isn't called "Schools and Efficacy", is it?). Education is a process that involves every element of our culture. We must be aware that schools play a central role in education, but so do families, the media, and public policy. As such, remember that you are a participant in the educational process (indeed, the establishment) of our society. Thus, ask the important questions. Are we educating each other for obedience, oppression, profit-making and conformity, or liberty, creativity and enlightenment? Remember that whenever we talk about education we are talking about every aspect of our culture as a means and an end. We are discussing what we value--and therefore make our goals of education--and we are discussing how we work toward these goals.

We are all teachers, we are all students. Welcome to Education and Efficacy. Please join the conversation. 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Radio Lab and On Point

I'm a big fan of podcasting, in particular NPR, especially two shows: On Point with Tom Ashbrook, and Radio Lab. I listen regularly, almost daily, to On Point. Less often--but with great enjoyment--I download and escape with Radio Lab.

As an education tool, I've sometimes sent links to my students for particular shows that I believe would be of interest to them. Since they can be downloaded for free directly onto an iPhone or iTouch within a wifi zone, they are easy to get and have immediately on a device. The On Point shows are always forty-five minutes, which is the exact time of my commute, so I typically listen to one on the way to work, and another on the way home. They are based on the lively talk show format, with reasoned and thoughtful discussion, expert guests and lots of listener calls taken to enrich, deepen or broaden the discussion. Even more remarkable is the breadth of topics covered. For instance, just in the past five days, here are some of the shows' titles:

The American Civil War 150 Years On
Are College Campuses A Hostile Environment For Women?
Ai Weiwei And Dissent In China
The Budget Fallout
Reimagining Malcolm X

Ultimately I am able to rest my eyes for a spell and gain deep insight and wide exposure into our world through this show.

In addition to On Point, I sometimes mix it up with RadioLab, a show that has short and long versions. The long shows are typically an hour, while shorter ones are about twenty minutes. The innovative feature of this show is the way that it uses sound effects to bring the listener into a story, and the way that it mixes stories to provide new and creative spin on a big idea. The most memorable show, perhaps with the best educational potential given what I do everyday, is the show on race. The teaser for the show reads "When the human genome was first fully mapped in 2000, Bill Clinton, Craig Venter, and Francis Collins took the stage and pronounced that "The concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis." Great words spoken with great intentions. But what do they really mean, and where do they leave us? Our genes are nearly all the same, but that hasn't made race meaningless, or wiped out our evolving conversation about it." I remember first hearing the way that urban students responded to their questions on race, and how they frequently answered with their nationality, for instance "Dominican" or "Jamaican." 

Radio opens on all kinds of possibility, if only we could use it more! I am glad as a professional and private citizen that I can podcast and stream, and gain access to both enjoyment and insight while on the move, doing chores, or just closing my eyes. These shows in particular, if listened to by students could truly supplement their education, but they have to be trained to access them and taught how to discern what is worth listening to--perhaps this is a perfect method of teaching them how to exercise the power and responsibility of choice. 

Finally, radio serves as another important conduit for the dissemination of ideas about education itself. We should look at how this medium processes information about education reform and understand how it is used, or not used, to advance a deep understanding. Perhaps we can advocate the wider podcasting of these two shows as a way to educate, and educate on education?

Below, just one example of a book who's author was featured on On Point, and that I now have on my wish list!  

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Economy and Education

What are schools doing to address changes in America's economy? Today we can observe historically high inequality, combined with high unemployment and stagnant wage growth for the vast majority of workers. Between the outsourcing and mechanization of industry, the high paying, unionized, blue collar jobs of yore are practically non-existent. We can consider our society, apart from the sliver of economic elites, as having only two categories of "opportunity" for future generations. One, the "creative class," includes artists, software programmers, scientists and engineers: the highly cerebral, highly educated folks who will create the new things and ideas of the future. The other class is the service class, a minimum wage earning, minimum benefit receiving, low skilled mass of folks whose career trajectory is limited and uninspiring.

Some of the numbers that inform this analysis can be found in the following two reports produced by the Economic Policy Institute just recently:

We are all watching the economy, if we have any sense to. More than two years following our dip into a recession and our perilous and frustrating climb out of it, let's start the conversation here about how the economy affects (or should affect) education, and vice versa. We all sense that a good education is the path to the future, but we don't know what that education looks like. Meanwhile, the reality is that a struggling economy only places that ideal education system further out of reach.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Taking HS Students to Visit Colleges

This past week I accompanied thirty-two students on a three day trip to visit colleges in Maine. While on the campuses of Bowdoin, Colby, University of Maine and New England School of Communication, my students met college students, participated in tours and info sessions, and ate in college dining halls. Being that we are a college prep school, part of our mission includes getting our students on college campuses and gaining perspective on the range of possibility that college has to offer. To graduate from Bronx Prep our students must visit at least ten colleges and must be accepted to at least one college at the time of graduation, so attending these trips comprises an important part of a student's curriculum.

I had an amazing time over the three days in Maine. The highlight had to be the deep conversations about diversity and prejudice that took place throughout the three days, as our thirty-two black and latino students visited one of the whitest states in the nation. Our students learned to ask admissions officers important questions about diversity and retention rates, financial aid and student support services. In addition we subsequently worked with them to analyze the meaning of this data. The trip also presented multiple instances when we had to address proper conduct and demeanor when traveling with a group, out of one's home community, and when others might be inclined to prejudge us based on race or class.

I do have some reservations about the way we conduct our college trips: for instance, we have students "apply" for the trips, but we haven't found a way to capitalize on these process to make a substantial learning experience. Some of our students aren't prepared to fully appreciate how much they can learn from these visits, and others still have to work on their behavior. Despite these limitations, the fact that we take our students to visit colleges, especially a wide range of colleges, is impressive and remains one of the greatest assets of our school. We will certainly continue to improve this aspect of our program, and through collaborative dialogue with others we may teach and learn about providing the best range of opportunities for America's youth.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Unions (Part 3) : Teacher Support, Protection, and School Reform Flexibility

Today we will reflect on two aspects of unions that are very important as it comes to how schools function, but that often are overlooked by outside observers. These two aspects are (1) support for teachers and (2) flexibility with school day, structure and management approaches.

Teaching is hard work. Between planning, managing student behavior, grading, contacting parents and administrative duties, teachers have many different "buckets" to tend to, and it takes a good deal of energy, hard work, talent and experience to effectively manage all these areas. For the average teacher (especially in their first few years) doing the job well means getting support, and the sad truth is that managers in the workplace don't always operate from this support framework, but instead act strictly as evaluator, delegator, or punisher. While this could thus open up a discussion for us about school leadership, let's instead look at how unions respond to this reality:

1) Unions protect workers from unreasonable or unfair management practices, giving the teacher room to learn, make mistakes, and grow without the unnecessary stress of unbearing supervisors.

2) Unions offer avenues for professional development that otherwise might not be accessible to teachers. For instance, unions offer generous course catalogs of credited and non-credited courses teachers can take to advance up a salary scale and maintain their licensing. These courses are low cost or cost free, and address critical needs for staff. Unions also protect teacher time, which gives them the opportunity to pursue areas of growth through fellowships, independent research, travel, and graduate study. 

These aspects of unions are important and should not be dismissed by critics. At the same time, these services do draw criticism. For instance, critics could respond by saying:

1. teachers need to be held accountable, and unions protect bad teachers
2. unions shouldn't be in the business of providing professional development--it's not their core function, so it shouldn't excuse unions from obstructing reform and improved schooling.
3. while some teachers might advance their practice with time off, others might not. 

So unions protect teachers, and that can be a good thing or a bad thing. Big surprise. What can we learn from this little exercise? Well, it clearly places the union between the teachers and the management. So if management is working for reform and teachers are lazy, unions are the enemy. But if management is incompetent or corrupt and teachers are hardworking and skilled, the union is the hero! Clearly, on the teacher side, we know that neither extreme is the truth. Perhaps we should look at a corollary issue--what does management in a school actually do? How does management interact with, or should it interact with, the union?

While politicians make the rules, unions are still instrumental in setting them and this is frequently sited as an obstacle to reform. School leaders find union reps to be a thorn in their side, disrespecting and subverting well-intentioned efforts, and calling out minor infractions of work rules that might be counter-productive in the first place. Leaders cannot manipulate their staff when a vigilant union rep is around, and this truth can go both ways for the students. With tight budgets, principals can't ask unionized teachers to stay late without paying them overtime, and a series of issues stem from just this one conundrum. Questions abound about what schools could be without unions, and charter schools are a laboratory testing these hypotheses. We ask: What could we do with a longer school day? Longer school year? More flexibility with staff assignments? More options for holding teachers accountable? 

With experience as both a unionized teacher and a non-unionized teacher, and through my observations of what is going on at other schools across the nation, here is my conclusion on this point about unions, teacher support, and flexible school rules. I'd argue that the union is not the problem--though it also does not contribute enough to the solution. Rules in schools are not set by unions, they are set by politicians who are accountable to voters and donors. The unions do have a voice and this voice is generally used to do what unions do--protect workers rights. I would argue that this is not such a blatant cost to the students, because protecting teacher time, privacy, and academic freedom actually serves the students in many ways. By contrast, having longer days (one of the most sought after goals of school reforms) is not a recipe for higher achievement by itself. Instead, higher achievement comes from this equation:

longer days+good curriculum+good teaching+good social support=higher student outcomes

Charters that produce better results with longer days often have better teachers, better leaders, smaller classes, excellent enrichment courses and STILL work hard to protect their teachers. Taking away unions might take away some of the bureaucratic headache associated with reform efforts, but it would not guarantee that all the building blocks for achievement are in place--it could just as easily lead to more burn-out for teachers and students as bad/desperate managers pressure the school to do more, but not better. 

With all that is said here in support of unions, I want to emphasize that I do not support tenure nor do I support union "protections" that run counter to sound research about good student learning. 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Unions (Part 2)

In an earlier post (already 2+ months ago), I weighed in on the discussion about unions. Since then, anyone paying the slightest attention to the news would have observed a heated national debate on the role of public sector unions, especially in Wisconsin and Ohio. The argument generally breaks down like this:

Pro Public Sector Unions:

-Union negotiated pensions are earned benefits, protected by contract, and therefore ethically and legally should not be cut (though future pension benefits could be re-negotiated).
-Collective bargaining should be a right for workers in any industry. Especially for those providing public service it guarantees  that the workforce has a minimal level of negotiating power to keep salaries and benefits competitive.
-When compared to private sector, why are we asking why public sector "has it so good," instead of asking "why does the private sector have it so bad?" If the public sector unionized workforce has a compensation package that is attractive and the private sector workforce is struggling, shouldn't we be looking for measures to encourage a "race to the top" as opposed to a "race to the bottom?"
-Some public sector employees have already accepted pay freezes, unpaid furloughs, layoffs and other sacrifices. When will the the idea of "everyone pitching in" apply also to the richest sector of the population, who are growing wealth at epic levels thanks in part to government tax and regulatory measures?

Anti-Public Sector Unions, or Pro-Austerity:

-Governments are strapped for cash, and the benefits granted to public sector employees are unreasonable and based on an outdated evaluation of economic conditions.
-Collective bargaining presents a conflict of interest, for the unions are major donors to (mainly Democratic) politicians. Unlike private sector employers who must deliver profits to share-holders, politicians' main stake holders are also those they are supposed to negotiate with (donors and voters). Inflated compensation is the inevitable result of this conflict of interest, and dismantling collective bargaining would eliminate the conditions that give rise to this fiscally damaging decision making framework.
-The public sector unions are anti-competitive, and with their rules and protections make it extremely hard for government to adapt to new economic realities. Public agencies need to be able to change and streamline in order to provide better services and a more reasonable cost to tax payers. 

My assessment:
Is it unhelpful to say both sides are right? The problem with this debate is that neither side has the absolute truth on their side, and so it is impossible to determine whose predictions would actually bear out. A compromise agreement, well designed, could address some of the weaknesses of the current system, but if it is not well crafted it will do nothing beneficial. At the same time, no compromise almost guarantees the losing side's predictions will play out.

The real issue here is that this is NOT the debate most needed at the moment--we have greater systematic flaws that are projecting far more powerfully destructive ripples. Like Michael Porter at Harvard Business School repeatedly says, we need economic strategy. Our school system is outdated in it's entire design, our economy seems to be driven entirely by the interests of oligopolist firms and the uber-rich, we are still engaged in two wars, climate change rages out of control, and the ability to find sustained, national, meaningful discourse in the marketing and PR chatter is insanely difficult. Ultimately, if we discuss the real system wide changes needed to address much larger economic, social and environmental issues, in all likelihood a solution to the public sector union question would emerge naturally. 

Note: I am back from international trips to Israel and Spain, and am still working on getting to a regular posting schedule on the blog. Stay tuned for more on unions, this is definitely not the end of what I have to say on the topic. Also, please comment! Thanks for visiting. :) 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Charters on the Upper West?

What is the role of charter schools beyond the most needy communities? I think charters should be allowed in more affluent neighborhoods, and it might actually be really good for the reform movement to increasingly grow into middle class communities. First, the schools and their networks can learn from that diversity and bring it back to their low-income schools... and second it might be good to take teachers with experience working with families in neighborhoods like Harlem and the South Bronx and facilitate a cultural exchange with more affluent, white families...

At the same time, two big challenges for charters and the middle class they might hope to serve come to mind, considering that 75 new charters will be opened in NYC by the end of Bloomberg's third term. The middle and upper class families, given their capital and educational expectations, when considering charters as an option, will most likely confront issues of space and institutional development.

(1) Space. Space in a school has a powerful impact on learning, from environmental concerns, major distractions from poor heating and lighting, scheduling conflicts in shared spaces, and low teacher retention associated with the frustrations emanating from a poor space. Young charters rarely have an ideal space (especially when they are only enrolling one grade at a time) and serious sacrifices are made to the detriment of the students.

(2) Time for growth and development. If I were a parent I might consider sending my student to a networked charter like KIPP or Achievement First because it would have that network support. However independent start ups I would probably avoid in their first few years. The real scarcity of money, talent, leadership, and the difficulty of designing and implementing good curriculum and well designed organization frameworks places education of the child in real jeopardy. I don't know that I'd take that risk with my child.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Anatomy of a School Crisis

"Anatomy of a School Crisis" by Amy Virshup, in last Friday's NYT, peels back some of the layers of the school crisis so many urban start-ups suffer from. What will happen to Columbia Secondary School with the departure of Jose Maldonado-Rivera? Good schools depend so much on good leadership, but good leaders crash and burn in impossible situations. Will Columbia Secondary ever be a good school? Will the departure of the principal be more a gift or a curse? If the structural obstacles remain unchanged, will any leader be able to bring the school to new heights, or even keep it out of the gutter?

Monday, January 10, 2011


Erika and Nicholas Christakis argue that play is critical to good education. With standards as they are written today, can teachers incorporate more play in their classrooms? If not, how should the standards be changed?