What School Districts Need to Change


Johnny is 10 years old.  On this morning, he woke up with a little bit of a headache and very tired from the night before.  He knows that he has missed a few days of school this year and his family will get a letter home if he misses too many more.  He decides to really bear down and get on the bus to give school a shot today.

He ends up in front of a computer taking a test.  Johnny has taken a few tests on a computer, but not very often.  The headache is not getting any better and he tries to keep his tired eyes open.  His teacher has talked to him about a growth mindset, the importance of grit, and to always persist.  He has all of those things in mind as he grinds thru a 3 hour testing session.  He finishes the test and is proud of that.

You see, learning is hard for Johnny.  His pretest scores are routinely in the 20% range.  However, he is a hard worker who strives to get better.  Learning is important to him.  By the time he gets to a post-test, he has mastered much of the material and scores in the 85% range.

Johnny’s standardized test score comes back, a few months later.  He is labeled as “not yet proficient” by the state.

Here in lies the dilemma, in my opinion.  The state test, which is important for many reasons, shows NOT YET PROFICIENT.  The teacher, student, and parents who view what Johnny has learned that school year see a student who has not only hit proficiency targets as set by the district, by from pretest to post-test has shown tremendous growth.  As a school district, at the end of the day, which of those two scenarios should we put more emphasis on?  Which should we spend more time analyzing?   I think the answer is clear, yet why is what is happening now so backwards?

Who Defines Student Achievement?

All of us agree that student achievement is important.  Teaching and learning, growing the minds of our students, will always be a central piece to education.

The issue is that school districts, school boards, and administrators have in today’s day and age, is how they are allowing outside entities to measure that student achievement.  We are allowing the state and federal government, who work regularly outside of the educational world, to define the rules and regulations regarding student achievement.  When in reality, they are not qualified to do so.  They believe you can rank and score the ability of Johnny’s teacher, principal, curriculum director, and superintendent to those 3 hours in front of the computer.  They are wrong in that thinking and we are wrong for following.  Johnny’s mastery of the learning targets in his grade is part of what we need to measure.  His growth over the course of the year is another important factor.  Yet, we are ranking schools and districts on those 3 hours?  I think 20 years from now we will look upon this as a very foolish way to judge students, educators, and school districts.

What School Districts Need to Change

You are not hearing complaints from someone who works at a school performing near the bottom.  This isn’t sour grapes.  The school in which I’m fortunate enough to work consistently is “ranked” in the 70-80th percentile.  Yet, I know it does not encompass all that I value in our school and what takes place here on a daily basis.

I understand why a school district would play within the rules being set for them.  When someone else controls your funding, the natural instinct is to follow their rules.  Who doesn’t want the money that supports their kids?  Also, peer pressure exists on all types of levels.  Who wants to be the only one in their county, region, or state that is doing something different?        


So how else do you measure the learning and experience a student has over their 180 days of school?  I contend we should be setting our own rules, standards, and expectations. Who better knows what those goals should be than a teacher, community member, parent, school board member, or administrator that is tied to learning in that community?

One Step Further

I believe we need to go one step further than just the adjustment to how student achievement is viewed.

The state imposes scores and rankings on us.  They require endless pages of school and district improvement plans.  Those scores and requirements are not going away and I’m not suggesting a school district should stop meeting those standards.  What I believe is that a district should set up their own measures of success.  An internal set of expectations and goals.  That is what should be communicated to the community.  That should be the focus with the teaching staff.  It is what students should hear.  Ultimately, it is that scale, decided upon by those in the school district, which determines success and carries a meaningful ranking.

My suggestion for a scale would fall upon 10 factors.  These factors encompass the most essential characteristics to the success of a school district.  Use this as your scale and determination as to levels of success your school system has achieved, not what the state is suggesting as measures.

  1. Student scores on district assessments
  2. The growth of student scores on district assessments
  3. The culture of the staff
  4. Student scores on the state assessment
  5. Financial standing
  6. Effectiveness of educators
  7. Social and emotional care of students
  8. Safety and security
  9. The rating of the school district by parents
  10. The rating of the school district by students

Let’s work to improve how we view Johnny as a student and as a learner.  Let’s work to improve the way we “rank” Johnny’s teacher, principal, and school district.  Let’s be sure to internally develop what is important to us, how that progress will be monitored, and how we did at achieving those standards.  After all, we are most qualified to do so.  #WeDecide


What the State Needs to Fix

Public education in our country has never been better.  Never.  Not in the history of the United States.  I would argue that point with any human to my final breath.  In the coming months, I will share a post including many specifics as to why that is the case, but that will not be the focus for today.  My brief share on that topic today is that our teachers are more highly skilled, professionally trained, and consistently learning to improve more than ever before.  Administrators have went from being building managers to instructional leaders.  Students are being asked to do more, at a younger age, than ever before (not all of which is good).  There has never been a time in our history when the emphasis on teaching and learning on a daily basis was this high. The work of Dr. John Draper has greatly inspired and informed me on this topic (http://www.johndraper.org/).  However, that doesn’t mean schools are without issues, flaws, and obstacles.

The educational system is not broken.  In fact, I argue that some of the fixes are not that hard, that complicated, or that far our of reach.  Here, in the state of Michigan, there are some decisions, blending common sense and educational research, that could make 5YkN7Lnldrastic improvements for students.  Just 4, for starters, and I think you would see an immediate difference in how school districts operate and thus able to better support their staff and students.

1. Some changes must be made to the standardized assessment taken by students within the state of Michigan (Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress).  To begin with, the test should be shortened and given multiple times during the school year (same overall time currently spent).  It needs to be computer adaptive.  The data needs to be reported back to schools within WEEKS of the assessment.  These changes would allow for applicable data to be sent to schools, analyzed, and instructional adjustments to be made.  The current system returned data 6-7 months after the test.  Really?  I’m supposed to use that stale data to make any instructional decisions?                                                 M-Step-Logo_473059_7

The test and it’s questions should be completely open for all the public to see after the test window is completed.   C’mon…are these test questions really that secretive?  Why would you hide the way in which you are measuring student proficiency?  Isn’t that the “Guess what’s in my head?” game that we are trying to get teachers to avoid?  Show us the exact questions, wording, and standards measured.  Change the wording while keeping the concept for the next round.  That will allow us to make connections to our current curriculum and support students accordingly.

2. Get rid of the “grading scale” for districts and individual schools.  You are comparing apples, to oranges, and sometimes bananas.  Furthermore, you are using one snapshot in time to evaluate thousands of hours of learning.  What happens in schools is so far beyond what you measure on the one day a standardized test is given that you demean educators by focusing on that and dismissing everything else.  You don’t measure Matt Stafford on one throw, a lawyer on line of questioning on one day of one case, nor a real estate agent on one listing appointment.  Stop doing it to schools!


Next week, I will share more on why school districts should ignore such scales and designations.  The terms “focus school,” “priority school,” and “reward school” are an inaccurate depiction because they measure too narrow of a piece of learning.  That set of data, in that one moment in time, is simply not enough to “judge” a student, a school, or a school district.  The scales are almost impossible to understand.  Evaluating a school is not meant to be rocket science.  Ask very talented educators in Michigan to explain the “Z-score” and you will know what I mean.  Have the Intermediate School District support schools in coming up with measures of growth based on the specifics of the district.  One size fits all does not make sense when it comes to growth, progress, and expectations of schools.  Include pieces such as student growth, parent collaboration, district assessments, safety and security, the social and emotional well-being of students, fiscal responsibility, and effectiveness of teaching staff.  Each school has leaders that can work with an ISD and the school board to develop appropriate standards, expectations, and steps to monitor.

3. Adjust the evaluation system to a growth model.  I do believe an evaluation should exist for all educators and it should take place annually.  It should include student achievement data, but with an added scale for growth.  District assessment data, which shows how a student is performing on a daily basis, should outweigh the M-STEP data, although both should be included.  Allowing districts to choose on a state-sponsored set of evaluation programs makes sense to me.  Don’t narrow it any further from there.  Set very wide parameters at the state level and allow local districts to operate within those.  Center the evaluation around growth and collaboration, with supports for educators, to ensure the highest quality educators are put in front of students on a daily basis.


4. Increase the incentive in Michigan to be an educator.  School districts need to stockpile talent.  Talent, talent, talent.  But we need to make sure those young, bright, talented thinkers of today, want to become educators.  I don’t have all the answers on this one, but I’ve been in the profession long enough to know that the lure of becoming an educator seems to be losing some of it’s shine, and that is not a good thing.

I was fortunate enough to hear State Superintendent Brian Whiston speak recently.  The ideas he is bringing into his position give me great optimism.  He has a clear understanding of the issues facing students, parents, teachers, and administrators.  I respect his vision and ideas for improving pieces from the state level.  I hope that he can make an impact on issues within our state that are trending in the negative direction.

It’s not all the fault of the state.  Many school districts are making choices or following initiatives simply because others are doing the same.  I’ve already started my work on “What Schools Need to Fix” and look forward to sharing that next week.

The Greatness Formula…

I want to be clear about this whole “greatness” thing…I don’t consider myself great.  Not at anything.  YET.

At this juncture of my life, it’s about the chase.  It’s about reading about others who have studied the chase.  It’s about listening to people on TV, online, and in person talk about how they have observed greatness come to fruition.  And lately it’s about analyzing those traits and characteristics, especially in myself, that seem to be necessary steps towards the pursuit of greatness.  A formula, if you will.

Over the past 6 months, these texts have most impacted my search for those traits.

  • Mindset by Carol Dweck
  • Toughness by Jay Bilas
  • How Champions Think by Bob Rotella
  • Training Camp by Jon Gordon

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The reading of those books, combined with the years of reading, listening, and studying that I have done, has led me to my “greatness formula.”  I think that formula and the pursuit of greatness looks different for all of us, so there is certainly some variation in the characteristics based on the person.  Here is what I need to master for that pursuit to become a reality:

  1. Optimism – A consistent positive outlook that enables me to drown out all the negatives, worries, and doubt.
  2. Mental Toughness – A deep level of grit, determination, and persistence.  That ability to handle and almost relish in adversity.
  3. Depth of Knowledge – Sometimes there is no substitute for knowledge.  Know what my area of focus is and read, discuss, and listen to everything possible.  I must identify gaps or areas that I need to know more of an develop an action plan to address those.
  4. Work Ethic – GRIND.  Be early, stay late.  There are times where I find myself behind the current skill level of others, but that doesn’t mean I can’t level that playing field by outworking them.
  5. Vision – A clear picture of who I want to be, how I am going to get there, and what I stand for.

This section from Rotella’s book is one I keep coming back to, “I would venture that most people are talented in something, whether they realize it or not.  What sets merely talented people apart from exceptional people can’t be measured by vertical leap, or time for the forty-yard dash, or length off the tee, or IQ.  It’s something internal.  Great performers share a way of thinking, a set of attitudes and attributes like optimism, confidence, persistence, and strong will.  They all want to push themselves to see how great they can become.”

Sometimes all of this leads to more questions.  How many of these traits are intrinsic vs. can be learned or taught?  Which of these do you have?  Which do you need?  What is your plan to get there?  I’m just glad to feel like defining this formula makes it feel like I’m one step closer.