Monday, December 5, 2011

Myths About Rigor

In recent years I've found that the mere mention of "rigor" provokes a variety of reactions. Some see rigor as an agenda that undermines the student centered school. Others see rigor as some political agenda. Others see rigor as a commitment to assuring that every student is provided the tools for success in school.

I've written a lot about rigor the last few years and with my colleague Barbara Blackburn have provided principals with tools they can use to work with their teachers, families and communities to improve the rigor of their schools. Our books, Rigorous Schools and Classrooms: Leading the Way, and Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders, have proven to be useful guides for school leaders.

We identified four myths that exist about rigor.
  • Myth 1: Lots of Homework is a Sign of Rigor - For many people rigor is measured by the amount of homework and many teachers pride themselves on the amount they assign. But the evidence is that lots of homework is not an indicator of rigor because "doing more" often means doing more low-level activities. Rigorous and challenging learning experiences take many forms and will vary with the student. More homework is not the answer.
  • Myth 2: Rigor Means Doing More - Some suggest that rigor means doing more than they currently do. The evidence is just the opposite. It shows that more often leads to low-level activities rather than the more in-depth analysis and synthesis that is important for long-term learning. True rigor is expecting every student to learn and perform at high levels.
  • Myth 3: Rigor is Not For Everyone - There is also a belief that the only way to assure success for every student is to lower standards and lesson rigor. The National High School Alliance says that an agenda of rigor must assure that every student is prepared for post-secondary education, a career and participation in civic life. It is about high-quality, rigorous learning for every student.
  • Myth 4: Providing Support Means Lessening Rigor - The belief in rugged American individualism---doing things on your own, often gets in the way of student learning. Barbara and I've found that supporting students so that they learn at high-levels is central to a rigorous school and classrooms. Howard Johnston and I conducted a study where we asked adults, teachers and parents, about rigorous experiences. They invariably described the challenge and the high levels of support and encouragement they experienced. The same is true for students. They are motivated to do well when they value what they are doing and when they believe they will be successful.
The most successful schools are those that build a culture of success, celebrate success, and build a success mentality. I'd enjoy hearing from you about your response to these four myths and how you're working to provide a rigorous, challenging and engaging educational experience for your students.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Instructional Rounds

Instructional rounds is adapted from the medical rounds process used in the medical schools to diagnose and identify treatment and is based on a belief that by working together educators can solve common instructional practices. It is based on the work of Dr. Richard Elmore.

Rounds is a multi-step process. First is identification of a "problem of practice," or an area of inquiry. Then a team "makes the rounds" by visiting classrooms throughout the school. The observers then debrief their observation and the data is used to identify appropriate next steps.

The South Lane School District in Cottage Grove, OR, an Oregon GEAR UP district, implemented an Instructional Rounds model. In South Lane each school selects a "problem of practice" or an area of inquiry that is their focus for the year. Visits by teams of district administrators makes the "rounds," visiting classrooms to gather information. Following the "rounds" the team meets, debriefs and provides the school's principal with advice about next steps.

The emphasis is on identifying factual patterns from the observations, not personal opinion or personal judgment. The debriefing does not identify specific teachers or classrooms but rather looks for trends across the school's classrooms.

A brief PowerPoint from the Oregon Leadership Network describes the South Lane Instructional Rounds model.

I'd enjoy hearing from you about other ways you work with your teachers to improve instruction in your school.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Student Shadow Studies - Data from Students

Schools are awash in data and principals and their staff are expected to use that data to guide improvements. Recently I was reading some materials from NASSP and was reconnected to the idea of a Student Shadow Study.

A shadow study is a different way of gathering information about how students experience your school. They involve selecting students at random and “shadowing” them throughout their day. The process, originally developed by NASSP, charts what students are experiencing every 5 minutes or so. This allows the observer to chart the ebb and flow of activities during the day. The emphasis is on what the student experience and it provides interesting insights into your school’s program.

Of course students quickly figure out that something is going on. So the best approach is to talk with the student you’re shadowing and assure them that you are not gathering information about them to share with the office. At the end of the day, spend some time with the student. Ask him or her about the day and about his or her typical experiences. Provide time for the student to tell you about their school.

Typically, several students are “shadowed” on the same day. The goal is to put together a collection of snapshots that can help design a portrait of your school from the student’s perspective. The data can then be used to complement other data and inform your school improvement efforts.

I’d enjoy hearing form you about other ways you gather data directly from students about their experience in your school.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Using Lesson Study to Improve Instruction

Recently I was talking with Jim Boen, principal of La Pine Middle School in La Pine, OR about his school’s use of lesson study as a professional development tool. Jim discussed how interdisciplinary teams use the lesson study design as a way to focus on improving instruction and building a collaborative culture.

Lesson study, originally used by Japanese teachers, involves groups of teachers in a collaborative process designed to systematically examine their practice with the goal of becoming more effective. It emphasizes working in small groups to plan, teach, observe and critique a lesson.

A sample lesson study protocol:

  • Participants should be volunteers
  • Members work collaboratively to design a lesson
  • One member teaches the lesson in a real classroom while other members observe
  • The group discusses their observations about the lesson and student learning
  • The lesson is revised and another member of the group teaches the revised lesson while other members observe
  • The group reconvenes to discuss the observed lesson

The revision process may continue as long as the group believes it is necessary.

I'd enjoy hearing from you about your experience with lesson study and other strategies for working with your teachers to improve student learning.

Resources on Lesson Study:

What is Lesson Study? – Columbia University

Chicago Lesson Study Group -

Friday, September 30, 2011

Assessing Student Learning

As a principal I always enjoyed the opportunity to visit classrooms for informal as well as formal observations. They allowed me to gain a better understanding of our students and their learning. Part of every classroom visit was a brief conversation with students about their learning.

A friend of mine, Clifford Weber, Superintendent in Bloomfield, New Mexico does something similar. He has three questions he asks of students and says that "The answers tell you a lot about students' experiences in schools."
  • "What are you doing?"
  • "How are you doing with it?"
  • "Why are you doing it?"
While in Bloomfield he worked with the staff to turn these questions into opportunity for student reflection and self-assessment during lessons. Teachers also asked "What do you already know about a [a topic]?" and "When are you going to use it?" The questions became a routine part of class and helped students connect their current lesson with past learning and future application.

I'd be interested in hearing from you about what you look for when observing in classrooms and how your teachers provide opportunities for students to reflect on their learning.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Conduct a Data Night

Recently I was working with a school near Chicago on their school improvement plan. A task force of parents, teachers and administrators revised the school's vision and then selected twenty different types of data that could be used to help identify action steps. Every member received a notebook full of data and a wiki was created so that members could share their observations and thoughts about the data.

The group held several "data nights" where they met, worked together to examine the data, discuss its implications, and assess the school's current success on each indicator. Small work groups met to continue the analysis and suggest next steps.

The data nights were helpful because they assured that everyone had the same data, had an opportunity to talk about its meaning, and to contribute to the analysis. These "data nights" helped the group move forward to develop a plan for their school's continued improvement.

A protocol for planning and conducting a data night are included in my recent book, Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders available from Eye on Education (

Friday, September 2, 2011

Consensus - The "Fist to Five"

Building consensus can be a challenge. While often the preferred way to make decisions, consensus can be fleeting. It doesn't mean that everyone agrees wholeheartedly with the decision, but it does mean that everyone can support the decision. At a minimum, everyone should agree they can live with the decision.

One tool I've found to be useful is "Fist to Five." It can help you seek common ground and is a quick way to assess the support among every participants. Ask every participant to indicate their level of support from a closed fist (no support) to all five fingers (enthusiastic support). Most groups I work with agree that the discussion continues until everyone holds up at least three fingers. Here's the complete set of descriptors adapted from those prepared by Adventure Associates (2009)


“I need to talk more on the proposal and require changes to support it.”

1 Finger

“I still need to discuss some issues and I will suggest changes that should be made.”

2 Fingers

“I am moderately comfortable with the idea but would like to discuss some minor things.”

3 Fingers

“I’m not in total agreement but feel comfortable to let this idea pass without further discussion.”

4 Fingers

“I think it’s a good idea and will work for it.

5 Fingers

“It’s a great idea and I will be one of those working to implement it.”

I've used "Fist to Five" many times and it is always helpful to gauge the level of support for a decision. I'm convinced that we made a better decision when we worked to build a higher level of support. I'd enjoy hearing from you about how you work with groups to reach agreement. I'd also enjoy learning about your experience using the "Fist to Five" approach.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Summer Hiring

Summer always includes some unexpected personnel changes. Teachers transfer, they move or may take another position. Finding the right people can occasionally be a challenge. When I was a principal I once conducted an interview with a teacher who called from a phone booth in a campground. It was a great interview and I ultimately offered her a job but it certainly was one of the most unique interviews in which I've participated.

Hiring is often guided by district policy but there are some important things you will want to consider. First, develop your selection criteria. Each criterion should be relevant to the work. Differentiate between the skills or characteristics that are required and those that are simply desirable.

Second, create and use a set of standard interview questions. They should be linked to your criteria but open-ended enough so that they provide in-depth information about the candidates. Principals I've worked with have suggested these examples because they don't lend themselves to a single answer and allow you to assess how the candidate responds.
  • What do you see as your strengths and how will they help you in this position?
  • As you think about your past work experience, what has been your biggest challenge?
  • Talk with me about the things you consider when designing a lesson.
  • When you're teaching a lesson how do you monitor whether students are learning?
  • Imagine you were hired for this position and it is a year later. What was the best part of your first year and what was your biggest challenge?
Finally, follow the same process for every one you interview. Even when you realize early in the interview that a person is not the best fit for the job, you need to respect the candidate and finish the interview. Otherwise they can suggest that they were not given an equal opportunity to share their background and skills.

I also like to send everyone who interviewed a short written note thanking them for applying and considering my school. Even if the person is not a fit for a particular job they might be right for another position in the future.

Schools are basically people places. So it is important to hire the right people and nurture talented employees so that they feel part of the school. That can begin during the interview and hiring process. Asking about student learning and professional growth sends a signal about their importance to you.

I'd enjoy learning from you about your experience with hiring and look forward to hearing from you.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Recommit to Your Personal Vision

The most effective principals possess a clear personal vision. They know themselves and their personal ethic. They also recognize the importance of vision to guide their work with teachers and other school personnel.

The frantic life of a school principal rarely provides time to step back and reflect on those beliefs that shape and guide your personal and professional life. The summer break can be a great time to stop, reflect, and identify those things that contribute to your personal vision for your school.

Preparing a written statement of personal vision provides an opportunity to think about the words you use, to consider their nuances, and to grapple with balancing multiple values and priorities. One principal I worked with described writing a vision statement as “the most challenging thing I ever wrote. But also the most valuable.”

A four-step process can be used to reflect on your own personal and professional life, and to identify those things of greatest value. These insights can be used to develop your personal vision.

Process for Developing a Personal Vision Statement

Step 1:Think about your personal and professional life. Make a list of what you would like to achieve and the contributions you would like to make. Describe what it looks like and feels like. For example, hovering in a hot air balloon over your life, imagine it as successful as it might be---what would you see, what would you feel, what would you hear?

Step 2:Consider the following things about what you have written---relationships, personal interests, and community. Examine each item in your list to ensure that it still fits.

Step 3:Develop a list of values. Identify the most important values in your life. Once this is done, review the list and rank them from most to least important. Remove the least important. Re-rank if appropriate. Check for relevance with your earlier list. Eliminate any item that is not relevant.

Step 4:Use the items from the first three steps to develop a statement of personal vision. Review and edit the statement as often as needed until you believe it accurately reflects who you are and what you want to be.

Clarity about one’s personal vision, or ethic, has been described as one of the most important things a leader can do. I hope you find this process helpful and would enjoy hearing from you about your personal vision.

Monday, May 2, 2011


Cyberbullying has emerged as one of the fastest growing issues faced by school leaders. It involves the use of technology to bully another person and can occur through e-mail, instant messaging, blogs, websites or social networking sites.

Often cyberbullying occurs out-of-school and off campus but the effects may carry over to the school day. The legal guidance about how schools may respond is unclear, particularly about when schools may discipline students for off-campus speech.

The US Department of Education suggests that the response may not always be discipline. Schools can talk with students, teach students about appropriate online behavior, and counsel students about appropriate behavior. For incidents where there is substantial disruption discipline might be the appropriate remedy.

There are many resources available to school leaders to help you deal with cyberbullying. They include an issue of Digital Directions, advice from the Center for Disease Control (, and strategies for stopping the harassment (, and information from the Federal Trade Commission about online safety (

I'd enjoy hearing from you about strategies you use to deal with cyberbullying.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Force Field Analysis: A Tool for Decision-Making

I'm always looking for tools that can help groups may decisions or select a strategy. One I've used regularly is the Force Field Analysis. It can help to identify a clear course of action and is anchored in the belief that every idea has both advantages and disadvantages.

When you use a Force Field Analysis you consider both the driving forces and the restraining forces, the things that facilitate and inhibit change. Driving forces are the things that affect an issue and push it in a particular way; they tend to be things that initiate a change and keep it going. Restraining forces are those things that act to restrain or decrease the driving forces.

Start by stating the problem or desired outcome in clear, concrete terms. Then discuss and identify those factors working for and against the desired state. Then review and clarify each factor assigning a score from 1 (weak) to 5 (strong), or high, medium or low. Finally, discuss the factors and their scores. The discussion often helps you identify appropriate next steps and become the focus for a plan of action.

There are many tools to help with decision-making. I like the Force Field Analysis because it tends to depersonalize the discussion. I'd enjoy hearing from you about other ways you use to help with decision-making.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Merit Pay

Race to the Top legislation rekindled the discussed about the benefits of merit pay for both teachers and principals. Over the past few decades many districts and several states have launched merit pay systems with inconsistent results on student achievement. Several independent studies have looked at the impact of merit pay and provide disparate results. The Denver Public Schools have had positive results from their system while a study of a program in Nashville found no differences in achievement. Other studies in Florida and Texas provided mixed results.

The National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University is one of the most comprehensive sources of up-to-date information about merit pay plans and the research on their success (

During the past year I have authored two Research Briefs on the subject. They include one on Merit Pay for Teachers, and one on Merit Pay for Principals. These briefs are available on the website of The Principals Partnership, sponsored by the Union Pacific Foundation, and on my website (

As always I would welcome hearing from you about your experience with merit pay or about questions or comments you may have about the topic.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Expanding Leadership Capacity

One of a principal's most important roles is to nurture leadership skills among school staff. It involves creating a school with a variety of leadership roles, opportunity for inquiry and reflection, and the change to learn and develop new skills.

There are many ways to help others develop their leadership capacity. They include:
  • Inviting them to work on a project outside their area of expertise;
  • Asking them to help screen and interview new hires;
  • Encouraging them to attend district meetings with you;
  • Asking them to work with you to deal with a challenging parent or instruction issue;
  • Inviting them to lead a book study group;
  • Asking them to serve on the school leadership team;
  • Asking them to serve as a mentor for a new teacher;
  • Encouraging them to become a member of a professional organization;
  • Asking them to present information to the staff after attending a conference or other professional development activity;
  • Inviting them to maintain a journal and reflect on the "good," "bad," or "flawed" leaders they know and observe.
These ideas and others are discussed in Practical Suggestions for Developing Leadership Capacity (NASSP, 2009).

I'd enjoy hearing from you about how you work to expand the leadership capacity in your school. I'm always interested in practical ideas I can share with my students and other leaders with whom I work.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Dealing with Declining Resources

No school is immune from the need to plan for a future impacted by declining, or at the best, stable resources. Schools are caught between expectations for improved student performance and the reality that there are fewer human and financial resources to support the program. Almost universally the issue is one of how to be both efficient and more effective.

There are generally three responses. First, you can identify areas where you might reduce expenses by eliminating programs or reducing budgets. But in many schools these efficiencies have already been achieved. Second, you can consider alternative ways of doing things you're already doing. For example, some rural schools have shifted to a four-day week to reduced costs of transportation, food service, and office support. Some have begun to work together by combining programs, sharing teachers, or sharing central office resources. In Michigan one district contracted with a nearby district for a portion of the superintendent's time. Others consolidated human resources or business services. Third, you can prioritize what you are doing. This is often difficult, even when you use data, because it is often seen as valuing one program more than others. If you prioritize be sure to anchor your decisions in your school's vision and mission. Some schools have learned that reducing every program a little isn't very effective. It may be necessary to focus on fewer things and do them really well. Always be sure someone is advocating for the neediest students, those requiring the most support.

Some schools have begun to work together to share professional development. Others have worked with local business leaders to sponsor professional development. Or you might want to increase efforts to identify volunteers, such as senior citizens, to work with students.

These challenging decisions are almost always better when teachers, families and other stakeholders are included.

These are challenging times for schools and their leaders. I'd enjoy hearing form you about how you and your community are dealing with your declining resources.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Advocacy and Emerging Technology

Principals and other school leaders are advocates. They are always advocating for their schools and ways to improve the educational experience of their students. Advocacy can be an effective way to press for change. It is also an important part of our democratic system and allows ordinary people to shape and influence policy at all levels.

Technology has changed the way we advocate, the way we share information about our schools. A recent story in the NY Times discussed how parents increasingly crave timely information about their children's schools. While traditional media will remain part of any advocacy plan, emerging technology is increasingly used by schools to communicate with parents. Many schools have created Facebook pages and Twitter accounts as a tool to quickly share information with families and others about their school and its successes.

Here are some things you might want to consider as you assess your use of technology to advocate for your school.
  • How often is your school website updated? Is the information current and easily accessible to families?
  • Does your website include information about your vision for your school?
  • Does the website provide information that families can use to become involved in the education of their children?
  • Does your school have a presence on social networking sites (Twitter, Facebook)?
  • If so, what sort of messages and information do you share? Doe you use it regularly to communicate?
  • Do families and community know your school has a presence on these sites?
As I work with my friend Howard Johnston to finish our book on social media we are looking for examples of principals using emerging technology to advocate for their school. We'd enjoy hearing from you about your successes and your challenges.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders

This week I'll be in San Francisco to speak at the NASSP Annual Conference. In addition to speaking on Friday about leadership strategies for creating rigorous schools and classrooms, my latest book, co-authored with Barbara Blackburn will be released by Eye on Education.

Rigor in Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders complements Rigorous Schools and Classrooms: Leading the Way. It is organized around our COMPASS model of change and provides over ninety tools that school leaders can use to work with their teachers, families and community to improve the rigor of their school.

If you're attending the NASSP conference I'd enjoy meeting you in our session on Friday morning or in the bookstore following the session. A copy of the handout used at the conference is available on my website at As always, I'd enjoy hearing from you about the book or about your efforts to improve the rigor of your school.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Myths About Rigor

When Barbara Blackburn and I were writing Rigorous Schools and Classrooms we spent a lot of time talking about the challenges that principals face when working to improve the rigor of their schools. The conversation led us to talk about the myths that are associated with rigor in schools. We identified four of them that we think impact the way parents, teachers and administrators think about rigor.
  • Myth #1: Lots of Homework is a Sign of Rigor - For many people this is the most prevalent indicator. Many teachers are proud of the amount of homework they expect of their students. It is often built on the idea that "more is better." Unfortunately the evidence is that "more" often means doing more low-level activities, often repetition of things done earlier. Because students learn differently it is important to vary the instruction with the student and to use homework as an opportunity to deepen understanding of what has been learned.
  • Myth #2: Rigor Means Doing More - There is also a belief that students need to do more than they are currently doing. Tony Wagner of Harvard found that classrooms are often characterized by low-level, rote activity. A study by Howard Johnston and me found that parents saw rigor as doing less but doing it more in-depth. That is often difficult for principals to reconcile when talking with teachers and other school personnel. True rigor is expecting every student to learn and perform at high levels and requires that students delve deeply into their learning, engage in critical thinking and problem solving, and be curious and imaginative.
  • Myth #3: Rigor is Not For Everyone - There is a belief that if everyone is engaging in rigorous activity, it somehow lowers standards and lessens the value. There is growing recognition that all students must be provided an opportunity for a rigorous educational experience that is more than just a set of courses. It is anchored in the belief that every student can be successful if given adequate time and sufficient support.
  • Myth #4: Providing Support Means Lessening Rigor - Rugged individualism characterizes the fourth myth. It is that if students are provided and accept support, it is a sign of weakness. We've found that providing support is an essential component of a rigorous school. Students are motivated to do well when they value what they are doing and when they believe they have a chance for success. When Howard and I talked with teachers and parents about their own rigorous experiences they invariably shared the support that they were provided.
I'd like to hear your reaction to these four myths and about your experience increasing the rigor of your school and classrooms. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A New Look at Classroom Observations

As a principal I always struggled to balance the legal requirement to observe teachers and write evaluations with the desire to engage teachers in thoughtful conversation about their teaching. I'm always looking for new ways to accomplish that task.

In The Principalship from A to Z I describe a three-step process that you can use to promote teacher growth. It includes a planning or pre-observation conference, the observation itself, and a post-observation conference. A suggested process and prompts are included in Chapter "Q."

A recent article in Educational Leadership (Dec 2010/Jan 2011) provided another way to engage in really thoughtful feedback and support. Jenne Calasacco, a principal in Hyde Park, MA schedules a week of observations. It provides an extended observation over the course of a week and a set of conferences with the teacher. While my initial reaction was the challenge of allotting so much time to a single teacher, I'm persuaded that such a structure provides a more complete look at the teaching process and how the teacher monitors and adjusts their work.

I'd enjoy hearing from you about how you provide teachers with meaningful feedback about their work and how you engage them in thoughtful conversation about ways to refine and strengthen their teaching.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Social Media and You

Over the last year I've become acutely aware of the power of social media to improve the educational experience of students and to transform the way schools interact and communicate with families and community. My good friend, Howard Johnston, and I are writing a book that will serve as a principal's guide to the use of social media in their school.

We're very aware of both the use and abuse of social media, of concerns about cyberbullying and other forms of harassment. But we've also grown attentive to the ways that principals use Facebook and Twitter to share information about their school and to keep families informed about school accomplishments and events.

Both of us have read, and recommend, a book by Charlene Li titled Open Leadership. It's a powerful book and describes the way social technology has created a more transparent environment, one in which leaders must behave quite differently.

As Howard and I continue to work on the book we would enjoy hearing from you about both the issues and concerns you have with social media, and the way you and your teachers use it to improve classroom instruction. We look forward to hearing from you.