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October 2014

Presenting research on principal coaching, faculty meetings, and personalized learning at MSERA 2014

Next week I will be traveling to Knoxville, Tennessee to co-present some recent research and other scholarly work at the 2014 annual conference of the Mid-South Educational Research Association.

"Enhancing Instructional Leadership Through Collaborative Coaching: A Multi-Case Study," represents the latest installment in a line of research going back to my own doctoral dissertation at the University of Louisville.  That originally study, also discussed in this piece I co-authored with my dissertation advisor, Dr. John Keedy, used concepts from Chris Argyris and Donald Schon's now classic 1974 work, Theory in Practice, to create a visual map for the thinking processes used by effective school principals as they approach their role as instructional leaders. 

One of my conclusions from that work is that even highly-skilled school principals need intentional, job-embedded structures to help them reflect at the deepest levels about their work.  Inspired by that notion, in 2012 I co-authored a research study with colleagues Janet Hurt, Beckie Stobaugh, and again John Keedy describing our efforts to design a coaching protocol using the theories of practice framework.  That article, which appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Qualitative Research in Education, described how we implemented the coaching process with four purposively-selected school principals.  While the results varied across the four participants, the coaching process proved a highly-useful tool for enhancing principal's self-reflection about their instructional leadership.

In the latest study, which I will present with my co-authors Tom Stewart (Educational Recovery Leader with the Kentucky Department of Education) and Sara Jennings (teacher from the Bowling Green Independent School District and one of my students in WKU's educational leadership doctoral program), is a reiteration of the 2012 coaching study, but with a twist.  For this project, we included six school principals all from the same high-performing rural district and incorporated coaching sessions involving the entire group sharing their theories of practice, reflecting collaboratively, and providing each other feedback.

The results of this new study were also encouraging, further confirming the usefulness of this coaching protocol for supporting principals' leadership development.  The group coaching element proved affirming and rewarding for the participants, though its real impact on outcomes was questionable.  Our presentation will explore the results and implications for future research.

I will also be sharing findings from Dr. Daryl Hagan's dissertation research on "Catholic School Faculty Meetings: A Case Study Linking Catholic Identity, School Improvement, and Teacher Engagement."  Daryl is superintendent of schools in the Catholic Diocese of Evansville, Indiana, and conducted his research under my supervision, graduating from the WKU EdD program in May 2014.  I will share findings from his qualitative exploration on how faculty meetings in a high-performing Catholic school help facilitate the promotion of school-wide academic goals and the protection of the school's Catholic identity.

Finally, WKU colleagues and I are co-authors on a number of papers that have emerged from our involvement as external evaluators of the $41 million Race to the Top grant being administered by the Green River (GRREC) and Ohio Valley (OVEC) Educational Cooperatives.  My greatest involvement was with a paper describing our efforts to conceptualize and evaluate the grant's personalized learning component, a topic of increasingly intense interest for me.  Doctoral student and graduate assistant Trudy-Ann Crossbourne will co-present.

Bill Gates did not invent school reform

The media is awash in so many ridiculuous "rich people are trying to destroy public education" hit pieces that I rarely even acknowledge them.  But a few colleagues have sent me Bob Herbert's Politico article, "The Plot Against Public Education," and it represents such a distortion of the current education landscape I just had to respond.

Herbert essentially argues that schools are being destroyed by nefarious plots hatched by billionaires like Bill Gates, intent on ruining public education through market-based reforms and rigid accountability structures. 

There's no doubt that some of Gates' reform initiatives have been failures, and state and federal government accountability mechanisms are often crude and problematic, but one could read Herbert's piece and come away with the idea that education was just fine before Bill Gates and the like started meddling and if they'd just go away our schools would be fine once again.  The truth is our schools are in big trouble, and reformers like Bill Gates didn't invent the need for serious reform.

A summary of my reactions to specific and general allegations of Herbert's piece follows:

1.  I am a bit repulsed by the hogs-to-slop rush that states and districts make when Bill Gates comes calling, but Bill Gates didn't invent the idea that high schools are  in bad need of reform.  The evidence of this fact is overwhelming, starting with the fact that high school NAEP scores haven't budged in 40 years.  Harvard's Richard Elmore calls high schools "the second or third most dysfunctional institution in America."  I agree.

 2.  Nor did Bill Gates invent the idea that teacher performance is a real issue.  See the New Teacher Project's "The Widget Effect," a report that documented the deplorable state of teacher evaluation in America.  This report helped spur a national movement to improve teacher evaluatuation.  States and districts were eager to take Bill Gates' money because they had the sense to see that the system is broken.
3. Many of Herbert's statements on charters schools are flat wrong or seriously misleading.  See the 2013 CREDO studies, which found that students in charter schools on average outperform match peers in traditional public schools.  This is the study that anti-charter advocates (those I'm always tempted to call "the people who don't want poor families to have more educational options") always fail to mention.  Also there is also no empirical evidence that charter schools cherry pick students.  Of course, there's nothing magical about charter schools.  Some charter schools - like all schools - will be failures.  The difference is that a failing charter school can be shut down, whereas a failing traditional school will just continue to suck money down the toilet in perpetuity.
4.  The author suggests that schools took Gates' money because their budgets have been slashed.  While many states have cut education funding since the Great Recession got underway, overall education spending has nearly tripled since the 1970's (the same period of time in which high schools haven't improved at all).  We'd all like to have more money, but the notion that our schools would just be better if they had more cash is a proven myth.
5.  While Diane Ravitch, cited by the author (in fact the last third of his article rehashes stuff that appears in one of Ravitch's books), used to produce some very important work on the limitations of school accountability mechanism,  she is now a crazy person who believes if we just returned to the 1970's all of our education problems would be solved.  Anyone who cites her now is not serious about having a meaningful dialogue on the issues.
6.  Why does the author set up the false dichotomy of virtual versus brick-and-mortar schools?  No doubt there are problems with online learning, but why assume that brick and mortar is the only alternative?  How about education a la carte?
7.  There's no doubt there is a lot of money at stake in K12.  There always has been.  Private sector folks have always profited selling products and services to K12 schools.  Some of those products are terrible, but that's not a failure of markets - just a failure of good school management.  If schools are spending tons of money on Pearson's off-the-shelf test prep material, then there's no wonder our schools are in trouble.  They are trying to do everything they can to avoid changing the things that really have the most impact on learning: teaching and the structure of schools (which is why Bill Gates' small schoools intiative was doomed to failure).
8. State and federal school accountability structures have serious flaws and are in constant need of review and reform.  But for all of their limitations, accountability is here to stay.  Taxpayers deserve to know how our schools are doing and if they are getting better.  Instead of acting like helpless victims of testing and accountability, school leaders need to claim their own independent visions of school improvement and then accountability will take care of itself.
Billionaires aren't out to destroy public education.  That work was completed long ago by teachers unions, bloated educational bureacracies, and a delivery system that looks eerily like the industrial plans of the Soviet Union
Bill Gates isn't the savior of education either.  But propping up a deeply broken education system is flatly immoral given the vast swathes of kids being underserved.  If we are serious about improving our schools, we need to break the government monopoly on education, give families a lot more educational choices, and create a meaningful capacity to radically personalize student learning.  Sometimes billionaires will be effective allies in that work, sometimes they won't.  But the need for change is imperative.