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Leader to Leader
Inspiration for the year ahead
By Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Originally published in District Administration Magazine - September 2003

© 2003 Professional Media Group LLC

Back-to-school time can be exciting, hectic and exhausting. Effective leaders take time to reflect and learn from others. Editor-at-Large Gary Stager has asked many of America's top education thinkers to share their advice for the year ahead.

The following are words of wisdom, food for thought and tips intended to inspire educational excellence in your school district.

Deborah Meier
MacArthur Genius, Co-principal Boston's Mission Hill School, Author of In Schools We Trust, The Power of Their Ideas and Will Standards Save Public Education?

We need to remember that we are more than "administrators." We are also experts on what is happening in our schools as well as what should be happening. We need to be heard in the policy debates about schools. Along with parents and teachers, we know something beyond what the media plays up about the state of kids and schooling in our land. If we don't see ourselves as truly expert on what the realities are in our schools, it's time for us to change this. Tomorrow!

We need to spend enough time in our schools, talking and listening and observing, to speak out forcefully on behalf of what matters and what makes sense. We're in the midst of an odd fad in which it's assumed that the only true expertise comes from those furthest from the action, and where those closest constitute some kind of "self interest" group. We're all self-interest groups--that's what democracy is all about. But some of us also bring experience to the table. So use it, and good luck.

Tom Vander Ark
Executive Director, Education, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

About four million young people will enter ninth grade this year filled with hopes and dreams about what their future will bring. Unfortunately, for a majority of them, the future doesn't look very bright. In four years, nearly one-third of them will have dropped out of high school. Of those that do graduate, many will be unprepared for college, work and citizenship.

As we embark on a new year, we have an opportunity to begin reversing this disturbing trend. Our nation's economic and civic health demands that we make a high-quality high school education a reality for every student. Let's promise our young people that no matter where they live, no matter their race and no matter how much income their family makes, their schools will provide the rigorous courses and the close adult relationships they need to succeed. As educators you can ensure our schools: acknowledge young people learn in different ways; give every student personal attention; provide challenging and engaging courses and create learning environments where every student is expected to succeed. Experience shows us that schools that embody these characteristics are usually small--with no more than 400 students. As a nation, we must commit to creating more of these high-quality smaller schools and learning communities so we can keep the promise to our young people that opportunity is available to all.

Monty Neill
Executive Director, FairTest,

District administrators face a very difficult school year with intensified federal "accountability" rules focused almost entirely on standardized test scores. This puts many in the untenable position of either narrowing educational programs to focus on drill for the tests or running the risk of not making "Adequate Yearly Progress."

FairTest believes test requirements must not be allowed to narrow curriculum and instruction. Instead, administrators must continue their work to ensure that all students receive a rich range of educational opportunities. Despite the difficulties, it is more important than ever to ensure that all teachers know how to assess their students well, using a mix of powerful assessment strategies and tools, so as to guide instruction as well as summarize student learning. This will require professional development and time for teachers to collaborate, as model districts have demonstrated. The payoff in better teaching and improved outcomes amply rewards the extra effort. The resulting information can be shared with the school's community, providing a deeper form of accountability than just test scores. District administrators need to work together with other assessment reform allies to create fairer, more educationally appropriate, and non-punitive accountability systems.

Alfie Kohn
Author of the Schools Our Children Deserve and Punished by Rewards,

Remember that your obligation is to do what's best for kids not--please your superiors, not to enforce order, and above all not to raise scores on standardized test. The objective is to help children become good learners and good people, and the former means not only knowing more things but continuing to be excited about the idea of learning. These days, its almost impossible to meet those goals without ignoring or actively subverting ludicrous mandates from powerful people who know less about education than you do. Thus, if you're serious about being here for the kids-if that's more than just opening-faculty-meeting rhetoric for you, than you've got to be willing to rebel against policies that clearly are not in the kids' best interests.

Etta Kralovec

Author of Schools That Do Too Much, Wasting Time and Money in Schools and What We Can All Do About It, and co-author of The End of Homework, How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children and Limits Learning

Schools across America are struggling to make ends meet. To make matters worse, current budget cuts are coming at a time when we are asking more of our schools. Most districts will move down well-worn paths, engaging in incremental budget decisions, 'robbing Peter to pay Paul' this year and hoping for the best for next year. Others will blame state and federal governments for forcing unfunded mandates on local schools. Many will call for a scaling back of the ambitious goals in NCLB legislation.

Rather than remain mired in old debates, we must re-think the role of the public school in the life of the community. Schools have been asked to solve our social problems and to provide communities with endless activities for the young. We are asking our schools to do too much and as a result they are doing too little of what really matters.

How can we re-establish priorities for our schools? One place to start is by aligning resource allocations--both time and money--to state standards. Such an exercise will highlight the problems associated with co-curricular activities. As a line item in school budgets, co-curricular activities consume between 10 percent and 15 percent of a typical high school budget. Did you know that the United States is the only country in the world where public schools have the lion's share of responsibility for these kinds of activities?

We would all agree that these activities are crucial for the development of the whole child and that they are often the glue that holds communities together. That is why they should be managed by towns, businesses, community organizations, and religious institutions. These community groups could use the public school facilities, but educators would not have primary responsibility for running these programs.

Such a change won't be easy. It will entail giving up some our cherished beliefs about what a public school should be. Educational leaders will have to shoulder much of the responsibility for helping the community understand the educational costs of our overburdened schools. The conversation educational leaders must begin in their communities this fall should start with a simple question: How can we help out schools focus on their core mission?

Gloria Pipkin
Author of At the Schoolhouse Gate: Lessons in Intellectual Freedom and Silent No More: Voices of Courage in American Schools

Fill your school with poetry. Post poems above the water fountain, in the locker room, on school buses. Invite students to perform their favorites, old and new, on morning announcements. Commemorate special school and community events with original poetry by students, faculty and staff. Transform a section of the cafeteria into a coffeehouse, and invite the community to an evening of performance poetry. Write poems on white-boards and overheads mad Web sites and sidewalks. Invite poets in the community to share their work. Survey your community and create a Top Ten list. Expand your horizons beyond the Dead White Guys and Emily. Shiver with pleasure, as Sekou Sundiyata's voice becomes a musical instrument; let Naomi Shihab Nye transport you. Fill yourself with poetry.

Robert Tinker
President, the Concord Consortium

In these tough times, many schools are slashing their software budgets. Here are some ideas for outstanding free software: Multi-agent versions of Logo are excellent for creating complex models. Both NetLogo and StarLogo are available free with lots models and ideas: NetLogo, StarLogo

There are a number of very sophisticated science models that can be used in secondary science at the Concord Consortium along with curriculum materials. These are not only free, but they are open source. Look at the Resource Center at At same site, you can join the Modelling Across the Curriculum project to get materials in exchange for supplying research data to these researchers.

Ihor Charischak
Mathematics Project Director, Center for Improved Engineering and Science Education, Stevens Institute of Technology

Summer is usually a time for rest and relaxation for busy teachers. It also is a time for teachers to gain new insights and learn new skills as part of professional development programs that are offered to them.

This can be a particularly vexing time for beginning teachers embarking on new curriculum projects, dealing with large, class sizes and accelerating administrator demands. One such teacher in one of my workshops who was exasperated by all the demands on her reacted to my reference to the NCLB goals with, "What about a "No Teacher Left Behind" program? How in the world can we be expected to know everything (you know) about teaching and learning! My administrators expect me to have those skills tomorrow." My response to her was that all long journeys to the "promised land" (whatever that is) happen by taking one step at a time. Think about what you can reasonably accomplish this year and focus on just that. Also, make your administrator aware of your personal goals. Remember they are probably thinking the same thing you are: "When is the "No Principal Left Behind" legislation coming?

Dennis Harper
Founder & CEO of Generation Yes,

I worry that the emphasis on testing is trivializing the value of technology in our schools and creating a generation incapable of solving problems or creating powerful learning environments.

Too few students know how to use technology in powerful ways. Schools typically don't teach (or even allow) students to participate in chats, forums, listservs and instant messaging. Why schools have an aversion to reading and writing is beyond me. Kids need to be trusted to not only use digital technology in appropriate ways, but also support their teachers in inventing the future of education.

By emphasizing test preparation, curriculum mapping and data driven decisions, students are missing out on creating long-term meaningful projects during their school days. Most students play video games and the longer it takes to master the game, the better. A game that takes 30 hours to "conquer" is preferable to one that takes just one hour. It is sad that the only place kids can learn how to achieve complex goals is in the often violent and sexual environments found in video games. As educators, we need to provide our students with the opportunity to do meaningful powerful things that will continue to make our nation great.

Mary Catherine Bateson
Visiting Professor, Harvard Graduate

School of Education Author of Peripheral Visions: Learning Along the Way and Full Circles, Overlapping Lives

We hear often enough that listening is a key skill for anyone in authority. Morn and more CEOs realize that they must rely on junior employees for the innovations that make business profitable, husbands and wives have increasingly equal voices in family decisions and listen to the preferences of children, and teachers are aware that good listening makes for good teaching and they must be learning all the time. There is a widespread effort to make relationships less hierarchical, with learning moving in both directions.

But who creates the two-way street? Mutuality can only develop in a context that supports it, and someone has to decide proactively to create that context. This is a more complicated task than keeping order and discipline. It is the executive's responsibility to maintain an atmosphere in which there is freedom to question and disagree, mad the teacher's responsibility to maintain a safe and supportive atmosphere in which children are not afraid to risk rebuff. Government has to protect the freedom of expression, not just allow it.

So decide to listen. But decide also to create the contexts in which others know they will be listened to and you know you will have the opportunity to learn.

Seymour Papert
Professor-MIT Media Laboratory, Author of Mindstorms, The Children's Machine and The Connected Family

In Maine some 250 schools were suddenly moved in to the 21st century by a state decision to provide a laptop computer for each students. My friend Bette Manchester was put in charge of helping their teacher make good use of the technology. She reports great results from a brilliant though simple (and even inexpensive) action.

She visits every school and invites the principal to spend a little time imagining what the world will be like--how different it will be--when the children now entering school graduate. Of course principals don't really have crystal balls. But just thinking about the question is enough to promote the growth of empowerment to innovate in the culture of the school.

Dr. Rebecca Constantino
Recipient of Oprah's Use Your Life Award, founder of Access Books,

According to the California state standards, educators should be certain that kindergartners "track and represent the number, sameness/difference, and order of two and three isolated phonemes." Those same standards say teachers must stress that all second graders can apply "knowledge of basic syllabication rules when reading and ... use knowledge of individual words in unknown compound words to predict their meaning. Sixth graders must "identify and interpret figurative language mad words with multiple meanings." Doesn't sound like much fun.

Nowhere in the state's standards are children to get lost in a book. Nowhere in the standards are children to stay up all night reading the last of Judy Blume or Artemus Fowl. Students are not to spend recess chasing ladybugs or counting grass blades. Children are to be memorizing, repeating, regurgitating and producing. There is no place in school for the fun stuff, the enriching stuff, the stuff that just may lead to inquisitive and questioning minds.

We are so stressed that our individual students meet a collective standard that we forget to let them be children. I remember when I was a kid. Everyday 'after school I played outside until the streetlight crone on. Then, cuddled in my bed, I read to exhaustion. No one kept track of my phonemic awareness or my ability to use figurative language. All that came from my experiences with books and reading and counting blades of grass.

You couldn't see my development on a chart like those in California classrooms today, but it was there. Antoine de Saint-Exupery' Little Prince states, "L'essential est invisible pour les yeux." That is, what is essential is invisible to the eye: growth from reading for fun, getting lost in a book and challenging yourself to count all the blades of grass.

Lillian Katz
Professor emerita of Early Childhood Education at the University of Illinois, Co-Director, ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary & Early Childhood Education

To say that all children should enter school 'ready to learn' implies that they haven't been learning all those years before entering school. But one of the truly impressive facts about young children is that not only are they are all bona ready to learn, but they are very busy doing so from day one. Granted, some learn faster than others, and some learn more easily than others. Thus our schools should be ready for young children who have been busy learning--not necessarily what we wish they would learn, or what we would want them to learn-throughout the years before school.

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