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Death by Committee

One of the reasons people hesitate to volunteer for committees is that they are afraid they’ll become “lifers.”  If you’ve been involved in schools for any length of time, you know that some committees never seem to accomplish anything.  They meet every few weeks, attendance varies, the goal isn’t clear, there Committee  are turf issues, people jockey for position – in short, it’s more fun to have plaque removed from your teeth.  These kinds of committees are often called “standing” committees, and that’s a good name for them because that’s what they do:  stand.

There are, however, ways to avoid death by committee.  Some administrators have had success by announcing up front the problem the committee is to address and the number of meetings that will be scheduled.  At the end of that time, the group will decide whether to continue or not.

It’s best to state the problem in a question and limit the scope.  “What can we do to improve nutrition in the cafeteria?” is a death by committee question.  “How can we limit or improve snacks that kids buy after lunch?” is not.  

A hard and fast committee rule is the work expands to fill the time.  If committee members realize that they will only meet 4 times, they are less likely to waste time on extraneous chatter or unrelated topics.  Also, the chair of the committee must begin on time and end on time.  If committee members ask for 5 or 10 minutes more, that’s fine – but it’s at the committee’s request. 

Time in schools is a precious commodity.  Not only do teachers have other professional obligations, but they have personal ones as well.  Committee work after school may require that the teachers’ kids spend more time at after-school care at additional cost, for example.  Teachers with personal obligations are unlikely to want to volunteer for committee work even if they’re interested in the topic, leaving you with the usual suspects for every committee.  However, by setting time limits and sticking to them, you may entice a broader range of people with more diversity of opinion to participate and even solve some chronic school problems.


Waiting for a book at the public library yesterday I overheard a conversation between a couple of IT guys who were setting up a projector.  The topic was the school outside of Philadelphia accused of spying on its students through the webcam on computers students can take home. 

According to school personnel, some of the school computers had a tendency to wander off and get lost.  Activating the webcam enabled school personnel to see who had them.

Spy-vs-Spy-without-bombs-775529  “Can you believe it?” one of the guys said.  “I’m trying to imagine some IT guy suggesting we should secretly activate the webcams on the computers.” 

“Maybe it wasn’t IT, “ said the other.  “But still, didn’t anyone say,  “Whoa! Are you crazy? What about privacy?  The FBI will be all over us!  Not to mention the ACLU.”

Well, apparently nobody raised those issues.  According to the New York Times, the FBI will look into whether the Lower Merion School District violated any federal wiretap or computer-intrusion laws.  A lawsuit has been filed by a student and his parents as a result of an alleged comment by a vice principal suggesting that the student was involved in “improper behavior in his home.” Whether he was or wasn’t, our purview doesn’t extend into a student’s home except as a mandated reporter.

The lack of judgment on the part of school officials regarding students’ privacy is, to say the least, surprising.  As someone who wasn’t completely comfortable even putting cameras on school buses, mounted in full view with everybody’s knowledge, I can’t figure it out.  A district affluent enough to provide every high school student with an Apple laptop ought to be able to hire someone to keep track of each one of them legitimately.  


After Snowmageddon

Even by Snow Belt standards, Snowmageddon was respectable. 

The difference is, of course, that in the Snow Belt plowing equipment stands ready to clear the roads and open schools provided that there isn’t also a howling wind and zero visibility. 

Snow Belt plows are behemoths, two huge blades jutting out from the prow of the truck and two more blades on the side.  They rumble along country roads, spitting out sand behind them.  There are few things S-SNOWMAGEDDON-large  scarier in northern life than encountering one of these monsters bearing down on you from the middle of the road, wing blades plowing both lanes simultaneously.  You pray that the driver sees you in your tiny car and picks up the wing blade on your side of the road before you meet.

I happened to be in Virginia when the first big storm hit and saw 5 little plows lined up ready to tackle the roads.  No offense, but they looked like toy Tonka trucks. But really, it makes no sense to house a fleet of plows to haul out every few years.  Instead, people basically wait for the snow to melt.  The result is that schools can be closed for a very long time.

Schools in the North generally include snow days in the yearly school calendar – sometimes up to 5 or 6 additional days.  (Some teachers’ contracts include “giving back” in the spring all or some of the days that aren’t used.)  Of course, the great majority of the time there is no need for that many emergency days in Virginia and Washington, so now school people there are rightly concerned about how to make up the lost instructional time. 

Even those who are worried about the lost time will not be excited about adding days at the end of the school year or giving up Easter vacation – and that includes kids and parents.  Extending the school day for a few extra minutes may fulfill the letter of attendance laws but not the spirit and is unlikely to enhance classroom instruction. Basically it looks as if teachers will have to take a hard look at what’s essential and what isn’t and plan accordingly (which is what we should all be doing whether we lose days or not).  It will be interesting to see if the loss of instructional time results in a dip in test scores at the end of the year. 





At the Friday night house party the teachers were sitting around with margaritas, talking about (what else) school.  Finally one of them said loudly, “Well, you know what they say:  Those who can, teach.  Those who can’t teach become administrators.  And those who can’t administer become superintendents.”

The room fell silent as I flung my salt-rimmed margarita glass at her head.  OK, OK, I only considered it Margarita  briefly.  The room did fall silent, however (maybe people were scared that I would fling the glass).  People were looking at me expectantly, so I said in the measured tones of a veteran superintendent, “I think you should have stopped a little earlier with ‘Those who can, teach.’”

Recognizing her faux pas, but undaunted, she said (by way of apology), “Well, I have known some superintendents I’ve liked.”

“And I’ve known some teachers I liked,” I said.  One of them was my sister, an outstanding special education teacher and the reason I happened to be at this gathering while I was visiting.  Uncomfortable, one of the other teachers said by way of explanation, “We’ve had some trouble with our superintendent.”

I smiled and shrugged.  “I’m on vacation,” I said.

Conversation resumed.  Sheesh, I thought. If you think the job’s so easy, give it a try.  Go to school for a few more years for your certificate, do an internship, and work your way up the organization so you can give up your tenure to take the top job, where you get to deal with people like you all the time.

Then I had to stop and admit to myself that when I was a teacher, I said lots of things like that woman had just said – just maybe not to the superintendent’s face (maybe there wasn’t the opportunity).  My colleagues and I were full of suggestions for the administration.  We were slow to praise administrative action, quick to ridicule. We all had better ideas than we thought the principal or the superintendent had.  Of course, what I knew then about the job of the superintendent wouldn't have filled the glass I held securely in my hand.

I remembered how incensed I was when my principal told me that as a teacher I didn’t have the broader viewpoint necessary for school-wide decision making.  Nor did I have the responsibility for it.  I was pretty sure that no one at this gathering really wanted to hear that, so I sat quietly and debated the wisdom of a second margarita.



Snapshot Redux

Yesterday I wrote about the  Snapshot of the Superintendency produced by The New York State Council of Superintendents (The Council).  Today I’d like to talk a little about what the demographics say about the future of educational leadership.

One of the concerns raised in the report is the issue of turnover.  It’s difficult for schools to improve if the leadership changes every two or three years.  New programs may be begun and abandoned; faculty may Flash  become wary of committing to change that may not be sustained. Turnover is particularly hard on small schools (under 1000) that are often seen as “stepping stones” for superintendents wishing to eventually move to larger districts.  In addition, superintendent searches may be costly if districts use an outside consultant and may result in general consternation no matter how smoothly the search itself goes.  

To counteract turnover, the Snapshot reveals a trend for experienced superintendents to be offered longer contracts and incentives for longevity.  A second trend seems to be a greater interest in hiring from within.  Indeed, I know of some school boards that have avoided a search altogether by selecting the next superintendent from within the administrative ranks (often the high school principal) as soon as the sitting superintendent announced his or her intentions to retire.

Of course, one of the major determinants in how long a superintendent stays in one district is the Board of Education.  Superintendents rated five out of six boards as “effective” or “highly effective.” Superintendents who rated their boards “ineffective” also were (unsurprisingly) more likely to indicate stress and dissatisfaction with their job.

A final observation:  There is little in our training or experience before becoming a superintendent to really prepare us for the job.   Superintendents report they generally felt competent in curriculum and instruction before taking the position.  While they believe they had some knowledge of business/finance, personnel, board relations, and political advocacy, the data suggest that these skills are essentially learned on the job.

The Snapshot concludes that current conditions will continue – the demand for quality superintendents will remain high and the supply will remain low.  Of course, true quality leadership has always been in short supply, but now is certainly the time for those rare individuals to step forward and make a difference in every state.



The New York State Council of Superintendents (The Council) recently released its latest Snapshot of the Superintendency. The Snapshot, based on answers to surveys sent to the 700+ superintendents in the state had a response rate of 66.5%.  Administered every 3 years, the Snapshot not only provides current Flash  data on the state of the superintendency, but also identifies longitudinal trends.  It’s chock-full of interesting information for superintendents or aspiring superintendents regarding the current status of the labor market for the chief officer of the district.

The last five years have seen the retirements of almost 40% of New York’s superintendents, educators who began their careers in the late 60s and early 70s.  When teachers retire, for the most part younger individuals are hired to replace them, tending to keep the average age of teachers in a large population relatively steady.  What happened in New York State, however, proved to be counterintuitive:  The average age of superintendents actually rose from 52.7 in 2000 to 54.3 in 2009.  The Snapshot notes that beginning superintendents come to the position later in life and plan a shorter career in the position.  More women are being hired, and women generally start the superintendency even later than men.  As a result, the candidate pool has shrunk both in size and age span.

For several years increased competition for good candidates led to higher salaries.  The Snapshot reports, however, that because of the recession, significant numbers of superintendents deferred or reduced raises.  Still, superintendents’ salaries rose faster than the inflation rate as did salaries for teachers.  The Snapshot notes that “the recent moderation in superintendent salary increases may result in compression in salaries between teachers and superintendents should the trend prove long-lived.”  One might conclude that such a trend would further diminish the superintendent candidate pool.

The shrinking candidate pool has turned out to be favorable for women, whose numbers have grown as many more boards see them as viable candidates.  In 1991-92, only about 10% of superintendents in the state were women.  In 2009 that number had grown to 30%, and the Snapshot predicts that the growth will continue.  Let’s hope so because women continue to be woefully under-represented as chief officers, especially in contrast to their overwhelming majority as teachers.

More results tomorrow.



Fruits, Vegetables and M&Ms

And speaking of childhood obesity …

We all know it’s about diet and exercise whether you’re a kid or an adult who wants to be fit.  Fruit-and-vegetables  Last week I talked about exercise and how schools can improve opportunities in physical education and recess without spending a bundle.  Just a word today about schools and nutrition and why changing the current system may be harder than it looks.

Children consume nearly half their calories at school according to a 2009 report from the Institute of Medicine.  I have to admit that is more than I thought.  Part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative is to take a look at what schools feed kids on a daily basis.

It’s not particularly easy to provide school lunches that are healthy and appealing based on the federal reimbursement rate augmented with government surplus foods.  Add to this problem the picky tastes of kids used to eating large quantities of salt, fat, and sugar found in fast food, and you can understand why some schools have given up and subcontracted to McDonald’s or Taco Bell.

I’m hopeful we’re past the era when school districts ironically traded kids’ fitness for athletic stadiums via “pouring rights” contracts with soft drink companies.  Still, the selling of junk food to kids in school in many districts has been driven by similar economics.  You can make a profit on junk food that may underwrite some of the losses of the general lunch fund.

Schools have a hard time controlling whether a kid spends his lunch money on soup and sandwich or on M&m  Snickers and Ho Ho’s.  Even at the elementary level, you can make a child buy the lunch, but you can’t make her eat it.

Computerized systems allow parents to decide how much money a child can spend on snacks, and that seems to help.  Schools can also decide what snacks to offer, and some are healthier than others.  In my opinion, no school should allow soft drinks, candy, or other high calorie snacks to be sold in vending machines even if the school does make a profit from it.

Increasing aid to school lunch funds might not only allow more healthy choices, but might also enable cafeteria managers to buy locally.  In addition it would encourage schools to quit selling junk food to our kids.  (And while we’re at it, they can stop selling candy and holding bake sales as fundraisers.)  

A Study in Leadership

Lincoln_matthew_brady  I just finished David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln.  It’s not the same person I learned about in school.

This Lincoln has both an ego and a self-deprecating sense of humor.  He’s self educated, but politically astute.  He has a strong work ethic, but he’s a weak disciplinarian when it comes to his kids. He is a self-made man, yet he has doubts about his leadership ability. He has enormous patience, but when it’s exhausted, he’s finished.  He has problems at home – money, the death of a beloved child, and a hysterical, spendthrift wife more impressed with her station than her husband is.  In short, Donald’s Lincoln is intensely human with all the flaws, pressures, and self-doubts that most leaders have today. 

At the beginning of Lincoln’s presidency, many Washington insiders felt he was well meaning, but not up to the job.  His orders at the beginning of the war were often ignored by his generals in the field.  His inability to deal effectively with political insider squabbles and incompetent generals was both personally frustrating and politically damaging.  And yet, and yet … he persevered, he grew, and he became one of our greatest leaders. 

Donald’s Lincoln is a study in leadership development.  It turns out that the man who became arguably our greatest president had to deal with some of the same petty issues that anyone in any leadership position does.   He didn’t come fully formed into the Presidency, but he developed a greater capacity for thought and resilience that many believed he could. 

Any school leader has to take away from this book a sense of comfort, not because there are dozens of incipient Lincolns out there in principals’ or superintendents’ offices, but because of the example of perseverance and eventual success Lincoln demonstrates. His humility and his refusal to take things personally served him well amidst the ugly and self-serving arguments among his staff. 

This isn’t the Lincoln stamped on the shiny new penny, but the awkward man who developed grace under fire.  And there’s the example for us.



PE Is Not an Extracurricular

“Let’s Move” is the name of Michelle Obama’s initiative to reduce childhood obesity in a generation.  I hope everybody gets on board with this one.

I’m excited that it’s called “Let’s Move” and not “Let’s Diet.”  “It’s not about inches and pounds,” she says.  “It’s not about how our kids look.  It’s about how they feel.” 

KidPlaying1  Nationwide only 4% of elementary kids have physical education daily.  Only 8% of middle schoolers and 2% of high schoolers do according to news reports. These are alarming percentages, but the key word is “daily.”  Many more schools have it a couple of times a week.  But if your school does, you might take a look at how much actual activity takes place in those 20-40 minutes.  Are kids actively engaged for the period, or are they watching, waiting, or sitting while other kids get their turn (or the teacher gets organized)?  PE classes can be structured to maximize activity, but PE teachers have to work at it and understand the expectations.  Wander into any high school PE class and count how many kids are sitting on the bleachers because they didn’t bring their clothes or sneakers or they have some kind of written excuse.  And if PE is a Pass/Fail course, take a look at the minimum effort it takes to pass.

Part of the problem is that the typical physical education curriculum hasn’t changed to meet the needs of today’s kids.  Instead of focusing on fitness or lifetime sports, many physical education classes still feature soccer in the fall, basketball/volleyball in the winter, and softball/baseball in the spring.  For most people, these are not lifetime sports you actually participate in, but lifetime sports you watch from your Lazy-Boy in HD.  Middle and high schools need to focus on fitness, and while they’re at it, look at the differences in activities favored by boys and girls. 

Arnie Duncan this week encouraged schools in tight budget times not to cut back on “extracurriculars” like PE.  That’s another part of the problem.  If PE is seen as an “extracurricular” instead of part of whole student instruction, how important can it be?

Not all physical activity needs to be a part of the curriculum, of course.  Elementary schools need to include recess as part of every day’s schedule.  Kids should come dressed to go outside even when it’s cold, and teachers can have a clean supply of extra gloves, hats, and even boots for kids who don’t have them (thank you, Parents’ Association ladies).  And we need to stop the practice of not letting kids go to recess as a form of punishment. 

A couple of days ago I talked about a Kaiser Foundation survey that indicated that adolescents spent over 7 hours outside of school with media (computers, smart phones, etc.)  Some may be wearing earbuds while they’re kicking a soccer ball or shooting hoops, but I’m thinking that would be the exception.  Daily physical activity is not a part of lots of kids’ lives.

So go for it, Michelle. It’s not going to be easy to change attitudes and behaviors.  But it wouldn’t cost trillions of dollars for schools to plan their schedules so kids have recess or to take a hard look at what happens in physical education.   Let’s move, people!



No Apologies

So even though he took steroids over the years he played baseball, they had nothing to do with his record-breaking 70 home run season.  That, Mark McGuire tearfully and solemnly assures us, he did on his own with some help from (shift eyes upward briefly) “The Man Upstairs.”

The fact that, like Barry Bonds, even McGuire’s head size grew bigger over the years, is apparently beside the point.  And who actually talks like that?  The Man Upstairs?Mark-mcguire  

It’s interesting how unapologetic public apologies often are these days.  In McGuire’s case, he says he wishes he had never played during the steroid era.  If he had played during another time, he implies, he wouldn’t have found it necessary to chemically enhance what The Man Upstairs gave him. It's the era's fault.

Of course, McGuire isn’t the only one to expect forgiveness with a non-apology.   We’ve seen other athletes, celebrities, and politicians do the same thing.  The format varies, but what these non-apologies have in common is that they allow the individual to shun any responsibility for his or her actions.  

One non-apology often heard after a particularly discriminatory or insulting comment is this one:  “If I offended anyone, I’m sorry.”  As if it were a complete accident, similar to stepping on someone’s foot as you shimmy your way to your seat in the middle of the row at the movies.  Why, yes, yes, you did offend people.  What’s with the “if?”  Pretending that it’s our fault for being so thin skinned and judgmental only adds insult to injury. 

And finally, there’s this one:  “It’s time to put this behind me and move on.”  Not because  I’m truly sorry,  not because I’ve made amends or restitution, not because I’ve gone to jail and paid my debt to society, but because I’m ready to forget it ever happened. And you should be too.

Well, all this self-forgiveness may work for celebrities and overpaid athletes, but not for school administrators. I once had a candidate for a principal’s position tell me that what he did on his own time was his own business.  As long as he could justify himself to His Maker (a.k.a. “The Man Upstairs”) he said, he didn’t have to justify his choices to me or anyone else.  So the fact that he had just left his wife and kids a month ago to move in with a student teacher was none of the community’s business.  Maybe not, but good luck with that attitude.

Fair or not, school administrators are held to higher standards, and when we’re working with kids and paid with tax dollars, maybe we should be.  Some may think The Man Upstairs will forgive their indiscretions or lapses of judgment, but Boards of Education may be less willing to put it behind them and move on.




Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.