The Competition Myth: Confronting the Consequences​ of Making Public School a Competitive Experience

Many economists assert that competition is a driving force that catalyzes improvement in businesses. BusinessDictonary.com defines it this way:

Competition:
Rivalry in which every seller tries to get what other sellers are seeking at the same time: sales, profit, and market share by offering the best practicable combination of price, quality, and service. Where the market information flows freely, competition plays a regulatory function in balancing demand and supply.

I am no business expert, but I think I have a basic understanding of this concept. Let’s use an analogy to help make this clear. Apple’s iPhone has driven the market in cellular phones. Samsung, LG, Tracfone, and others have had to improve their combination of price, quality, and service when it comes to the smartphone movement. As Apple has linked several of its’ other devices to the smart phone-think Apple Watch, Ipad/Ipad Pro, MacBook, it has created a community of consumers who more often than not own multiple products. By making sure the smartphone they design changes the way we work, live, socialize, and entertain ourselves, they force companies like Samsung and LG to create products like the Galaxy that can perform similar functions for a more reasonable price. This theory works well for products, for actual things because it diversifies the market, ensures that company innovations match consumer needs, and creates an opportunity for everyone to have a smartphone, even if they can’t afford iPhone X.

Some believe this same concept can help create better schools, and force educators to improve their practices to remain relevant in the market. They argue that adopting this philosophy to teaching and learning can help create better-prepared teachers, more motivated students, and force school districts to improve the quality of learning they offer when parents have other choices for their child’s educational experiences. A fundamental reason for competition is its effects in creating a diversified marketplace for better schools. After many years of a great deal of advocacy for a competitive mindset to be applied to American schooling, one has to ask, have all of our schools improved and gotten better as a result of this competition mindset we’ve adopted?

Hart and Figlo answered that question this way in their 2011 Education Next article, Does Competition Improve Public Schools

It is notoriously difficult to gauge the competitive effects of private schools on public school performance. Private schools may be disproportionately located in communities with low-quality public schools, causing the relationship between private school competition and public school performance to appear weaker than it actually is. If, however, private schools are located in areas where citizens care a lot about educational quality, the relationship will appear stronger than it truly is.

Other scholars now say that competition improves not only the quality of public schools but can also improve outcomes for students. In Bozzo’s 2016 article, School Vouchers: A Vehicle to Induce Greater Competition In Public Schools, she concludes:

“Many previous voucher studies have found that programs are successful at increasing competition and student academic outcomes but only on the lowest and highest performing public school students and in the most competitive school districts. Therefore, voucher programs are not an education reform that will work for all student groups and for all states, and vouchers will not be the panacea that will help all low-performing students to catch up. Moreover, precautions must be taken to ensure that heightened scrutiny and competition do not lead to negative unintended consequences, such as cheating and increased stress for students. Despite these limitations, greater competition has led to increases in student achievement in public schools in Ohio and Florida, particularly among the lowest performing students. Future studies and efforts should continue to identify the distinctive populations and contexts that can successfully use vouchers to foster greater competition and promote improvements in educational performance, particularly for vulnerable populations.”

The question I am left with is who are the children that end up on the downside of this competition? Unlike second place smartphones like the Galaxy when compared to the Iphone X, I believe none of our children deserve a second place education. When competition comes into play, it means there are winners and losers. It means someone has to be the best and someone has to be the worst. It means some schools have to be exceptionally better than others and some have to be exceptionally worse. That troubles me greatly because I believe all children deserve a high-quality education and none deserve to be on the lower end of the competition chain in their educational experience. What happens to those children whose parents don’t have the means or capacity to choose? What happens to the children whose mothers and fathers happen to not be engaged at all in their education? Who deserves the Iphone X education versus the Tracfone education?

The competition concept is a myth because I am uncertain as to whether it makes us ALL better. Instead, I believe it creates exceptionally great access and educational opportunity for some while others are left behind. I worry often that choice, which sounds good in theory, leaves some students with no choice at all. I think the education of students is far too complex to apply a broadly based business theory to an exercise in human interaction. I may be too utopian and idealistic in my beliefs, but I can’t help but think about the children on the bottom of the competition and what it means for them.

I think we’d be wise to look at this concept as something to be applied based on context, if and when it can be helpful, instead of broadly across public education. I remain uncertain as to how this impacts teacher and leadership retention, and how it impacts the rhetoric that some public schools are failures when in reality the idea of competition means someone has to fail in order for someone else to succeed. I have no answers for this myth, except to say it is something that stays heavily on my mind. What I know for sure, is that I believe all means all and that all students deserve the absolute best education we can offer them and I am not sure that is something we should make competitive.

Until next time- Be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

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The Zip Code Myth: Dismantling Predictive Geography

We’ve all heard it before. A child’s zip code should not determine the quality of education they receive. We’ve sat through or read numerous pieces on why we cannot continue to allow zip codes to determine the success of our children. I agree. I believe with my whole heart that every child deserves a quality educational experience that allows him or her to reach their highest potential. However, it almost seems silly for us to reduce the well known inequity students experience to geography and zip codes. We need to go beyond the idea that location of where you receive your education matters and dig deep into the mindsets that hold some communities hostage in the fight for equity.

I guess my frustration with the zip code argument is that there is nothing one can do, no action a student can take, to change where he or she lives. Additionally, seeking teachers or educational leaders who are “beating the odds” signifies that we’ve given up on changing mindsets, on creating more equitable communities, on calling out White flight and segregation academies meant to keep children separated during the time they spend in school. All the zip code rhetoric in the world doesn’t answer these questions:

1. Why can’t all of our students attend a quality school together?

2. Why can’t we pool our resources and provide a great education for every child instead of spreading resources and opportunities thin because there are separate systems of schooling (both formally and informally)?

In Mark Elgart’s 2016 Huffington Post article, Student Success Comes Down To Zip Code, he shares:

A study recently released by sociologist Ann Owens of the University of Southern California showed that access to good schools in the nation’s 100 largest cities continues to exacerbate income inequality between neighborhoods. Income disparities in communities increased by 20 percent from 1990 to 2010, largely because of the desire people have to live within the boundaries of top-performing schools. The study also indicates that income segregation between neighborhoods was nearly twice as high among households that have children compared to those without.

Instead of talking about the impact of zip codes and residential location on school quality, why isn’t there more conversation around who is drawing attendance lines that exacerbate inequity? Why aren’t we discussing how we can create more mixed income neighborhoods? What’s keeping us from talking about the root causes of the income disparities this researcher speaks of and how we begin changing that?

Zip codes aren’t the problem. It’s the mindsets of those who have forgotten or either don’t believe that the public education of all children is for the public good of all of us. As long as we champion a “beat the odds” mentality instead of a “level the playing field one” the zip code narrative will hold true. While I applaud every student who overcomes the obstacles of poverty and trauma, and every educator who is able to help students be successful in spite of the obstacles they face, wouldn’t it prove helpful to work on reducing the disparities and obstacles instead of giving all of our energy and attention to how we overcome them? If we were to spend more time addressing the causes instead of the effects, perhaps we might be able to shift this conversation to one that boldly and courageously addresses what we’ve known to be a key issue in our work since James Coleman’s 1966 report: We are better together. Coleman notes,

The research results indicate that a child’s performance, especially a working-class child’s performance, is greatly benefited by his going to school with children who come from different backgrounds,” Coleman said. “If you integrate children of different backgrounds and socioeconomics, kids perform better.”

We have an opportunity before us as educators to call on policy makers and others who make decisions about economic development, jobs, quality housing, and more to help reduce the inequities that plague these areas where zip codes are credited for the lack of success children experience. If we know we are better together, that all of our children are better when we educate them together, let’s stop talking about zip codes and start talking about how we can live, work, and learn together for the benefit of all involved.

Until next time- Be you. Be true. Be a hope builder!

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

The Expectations Myth: A Stubborn Refusal to Address Bigotry and Bias In The Classroom

High expectations matter. There’s no doubt about that. There’s plenty of research to support the claim that teacher expectation matters a great deal when it comes to student outcomes. In 1968, Rosenthal and Jacobson published Pygmalion in the Classroom. This study provided evidence that teacher expectations can significantly impact student achievement. You can read more about the historical overview of scholarly research on the impact of teacher expectation here. Today, as I read multiple perspectives on the achievement gap and listen to practitioners it seems the solution is often boiled down to this: “The soft bigotry of low expectations.” These words came from then Gov. George W. Bush of Texas in 1999 in a speech he gave on how he planned to improve education. It’s not that I disagree with the significant impact expectations has on our students, but here’s the myth: Expectations alone won’t fix the achievement gap because these low expectations are rooted in something far more detrimental: bigotry.

For years I’ve listened to speaker after speaker share insight on how low expectations are the cause of the gap in performance between minority children and their White counterparts. While that may be partly true, the root cause of this is due to bigotry, prejudice, and systemic oppression sometimes inherent in our policies and practices in public education. Let’s get real honest here. Giving high expectations lip service doesn’t mean one truly believes that all students deserve a high quality education.

It is important and essential for us to acknowledge that being educators doesn’t mean we are universally agnostic to bias or prejudice of any kind. It means recognizing we all bring our biases to the table and it is our professional and moral responsibility to check ourselves and others when we see these skewed perceptions or biased beliefs and attitudes manifesting themselves in our classrooms and our school buildings.

If we were to really tackle the achievement gap, there are lots of things we would do, but one of them is that we would move the conversation beyond low expectations and really get at the heart of bias and bigotry. We’d talk through how we end up with skewed perspectives when we limit our personal experiences to being around other humans who live, work, worship, love, and believe like us. We’d end up digging deep into people’s hearts before we tried changing their minds. Even then it may not change anything, but the perpetual conversation around low expectations for Black and Brown children hasn’t either. I’m convinced it is because most are afraid to call it what it is: bigotry and bias. I don’t see it as soft either, but that’s a post for another day.

Those individuals who desire to lead with equity at the center must understand that this work goes far beyond having high expectations for all. It means recognizing when there are policies or practices that create inequity (intentionally or not) and making changes to those to create a more equitable experience for all students. Every educator has a set of core values that impacts their perspective and behavior. It can be difficult to see the inequity in practices and policies depending on your experiences, and especially if you’ve not been on the end of a practice or policy negatively impacting your access and opportunity. If leaders are interested in leading with equity in mind,they evaluate every decision with reflection questions like these:

1. Who are we leaving out?

2. Who is being excluded?

3. What barriers are impeding their access and/or opportunity?

Then, they work tirelessly to remove the barriers so that when they use the phrase “all students” it truly means all students. They call out practices that exclude and offer solutions to make them more inclusive and equitable. They build in deliberate ways to ensure that low expectations are checked along with bias. They create policies and practices that create a more equitable experience, equitable access, and equitable opportunities for all students. They are courageous enough to do this even when they are alone in their advocacy.

If we truly are interested in closing the achievement gap, we’re going to have to talk about the root causes: hearts and minds that believe some students are less capable and deserve different opportunities than others. The conversation will be difficult, but it has the potential to lead us to a place we’ve needed to address from the very beginning: the hearts of those who serve.

Until next time! Be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

The Turn Around Myth

In the Spring of 2014, I graduated with my Doctorate of Philosophy from the University of South Carolina. After five long years of a rigorous and intense dual Education Specialist and Doctorate of Philosophy program, I was looking forward to nights and weekends again. Additionally, I was seeking a new professional challenge. I had served as principal in the same school for 6 and a half years and our school was able to make dramatic improvements in student achievement. For five consecutive years, our standardized test scores improved. We were proud of our hard work and the success of our students, yet I knew it was time for a new professional challenge. In a discussion with a colleague and fellow administrator, I expressed my desire to embark on a new journey. My colleague agreed that it was indeed an appropriate professional next step for me. She said, “Latoya, face it. You are a turnaround principal.” I accepted what she said at that moment. I had heard the term before. It was a term for principals who had gone into underperforming schools and helped improve their test scores or who were leaders who were able to help their school be removed from the state’s low performing list and those people were considered a rarity in the profession. My next professional move had to be just that if I was going to be able to be seen as a turnaround leader.

I spent the next few years at a low-performing middle school in North Carolina. Using a co-principal model and with the opportunity to work daily with my dearest friend and colleague, Michael Waiksnis. We wanted to improve our school. We implemented professional learning communities, improved the climate and culture as evidenced by the teacher working conditions survey, and after two years of diligence, hard work, sweat, and many tears and frustrations, the school was no longer on North Carolina’s low performing list. We celebrated. We were thrilled that our efforts had manifested in the way in which we needed them to in order to be removed from the low performing list. I went on to undertake a new professional challenge, working with low performing schools at the state level just across the border in my home state, South Carolina.

After nearly 20 years in public education, I must confess something here in this blog: I am not a turnaround leader because turnaround leadership is a myth. That’s right. I said it. I see myself as a transformational leader now, and it’s far more accurate than the trendy word, turnaround, that is used in education far too often. I am sure some are wondering where my ultimate aim might land with this post. If you’re brave enough to consider something different than what others generally believe, keep reading.

When public educators and others use the word turnaround leader or school turn around, what exactly are they referencing? What has to change for a school leader to be considered or categorized as a turnaround leader?  In my experience, it seems that the turnaround is only about raising student achievement on a standardized test. What’s often left out of the concept of turnaround are all the other things that also need to be turned around: inequity, teacher and principal retention and recruitment, community and/or district mindset, culture, climate, equitable access and opportunity for students, and more. While we may, in fact, be able to improve test scores in spite of serving high concentrations of low-income students, our ability to raise the test scores of students doesn’t turnaround the other equally and sometimes significantly more important elements that impact students in ways far beyond their K-12 experience.

We have yet to implement a solution or deliberate strategy to close the achievement gap. Instead, we seek leaders who can help students improve their performance on standardized tests in spite of all the barriers and obstacles they face. We accept the barriers and laud those who can improve test scores in spite of at all as turnaround leaders. I find this extremely problematic because this is, in essence, an acceptance of the inequity our students of poverty and often, of color face. Our youngsters in high poverty schools across our country are often taught in educational settings that are highly segregated by socioeconomics and sometimes race. They are often also subjected to less experienced and effective teachers, to a constant turn over of school and district leaders, and to fewer opportunities and access to more rigorous and advanced coursework, extracurricular activities, and the like. While test scores may take a different direction, these things that also gravely impact the success of students well beyond their K-12 years, don’t turn around at all.

When we subscribe to language and usage of terms like school turn around, we inadvertently agree that subjecting students to a less equitable learning environment and still being able to educate them enough to pass the standardized test as acceptable. While I am very proud of the work we did in both schools where I served as a principal, I remain concerned about the struggle to find and retain effective teachers and school leaders, the lack of access and opportunities for students of poverty, the impact of schooling in environments where there is a lack of resources and a high concentration and homogeneous grouping of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the turnover in teacher and school leaders for these students, which I too, contributed to as a leader who left after just a few years.

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Read my book Burned Out, Beaten Up, Fighting Back: A Call To Action For America’s Public Educators to learn more about that.

If turn around leadership were a real concept, our country would not have an achievement gap among students of various backgrounds and races in reading and math that persists across the country,  in spite of all the turn around leaders. You can read more about the persisting gap here.

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From: https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2017/2017051.pdf
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From: https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2017/2017051.pdf caption

Perhaps what we need  are not turn around leaders, but courageous and brave leaders who are willing to work to turn around the mindsets about the impact of creating schools of high concentrations of poverty, the idea that excelling in spite of having less access and opportunity to rigorous courses is something to applaud but also something to change, who are willing to admit that our issues of inequity and the achievement gap will not be solved and cannot be changed by simply hiring strong instructional leaders who can move test scores in a positive direction. While test scores may turn around, to improve the quality of schooling and ultimately of life that our students of poverty experience, we must also turn around the mindsets of those who create the policies that impact these students. We must turn around the lack of access and opportunity that these students experience. We must turn around the revolving door of less experienced and ineffective teachers these students are subjected to having as instructors. We must turn around the 30% turnover rate among principals in high-poverty schools. 

Only then can we truly begin to talk about the concept of turning around low-performing schools. Let’s have a conversation that matters and turn around our persistent and stubborn avoidance of the root issue: inequity.

Until next time-Be you. Be true. Be a hope builder.

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

Leaders Must Be Readers!

So yesterday I fell suddenly ill in the midst of a presentation I had the opportunity to view. I was in a meeting of a steering committee I am a member of when I heard a principal say these awful words:

“I’m a principal who doesn’t read much.”

I gasped for air, clutched my chest, and tried to gather myself. I immediately took to Twitter to release the whirlwind of emotions that overcame me. You can check out my Twitter feed from Friday 10/26/18 and see the thread for yourself. In the end, I gathered myself and approached the educator privately at the next break. We locked eyes and I introduced myself. We shook hands and I took a deep breath and said:

“I must tell you how mortified I was by your admission in a room full of critical stakeholders that you don’t read much. This is what perpetuates the negative narrative, “those who can, do and those who can’t, teach”. You have a responsibility and professional obligation to be scholarly and academic in your leadership for your staff and your students. How can you serve as instructional leader or model for your staff the critical importance of reading if you don’t read? I challenge you to do better. I’m going to mail you some books.”

The young man nodded and nervously said “thank you”. He went on to let me know his staff had in fact done some book studies and so I reiterated the point that he must inform his practice as a leader by being a reader and a learner.

Newsflash folks: INSTRUCTIONAL LEADERSHIP IS NOT INSTINCTUAL. What you put in your toolbox or fail to put in your toolbox is directly correlated to the quality of the feedback you are able to provide to teachers in an effort to help them improve their practice. The mandatory annual district professional development days with a conference sprinkled in here or there is not enough. It is, in my opinion, very difficult to lead what you haven’t learned.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that one must demonstrate expertise in every single organizational strategy. That is impossible and likely would be very overwhelming. However, without context, just like students without prior knowledge, one creates a situation in which he or she leads blindly. Our words and efforts become our best guesses instead of healthy observations informed by knowledge and research and practice.

As educators we love children and adore the opportunity to work with them and that is why we must view ourselves as academic scientist. Our love alone will not give our students what they need. They need both: love and scholarship. It is out professional and moral obligations to extend ourselves as studies of the art of teaching and learning, as scholarly academics who work to improve our practice, and take personal responsibility for our professional development. Our cognitive commitment to the work is as important as our heart connection to the children. It is our hearts and our minds that will help our children reach their maximum potential.

Reading is more than fundamental. It is necessary and essential to leadership.

Now-go grab a book!

Until next time-Be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

A Renewed Commitment​: Share My Why

My first few days at iNACOL’s 2018 symposium have been phenomenal. My brain and my heart are swelling with ideas and thoughts. I feel I am surrounded by people who believe and desire for all children in this country to have the absolute best learning experience possible. The conversation has centered around equity. I was struck by so much that I have heard, but one thing today really stood out today. In one session I attended the facilitator reminded us to “embrace our vulnerability because it is the foundation of connection”. Additionally, she pushed us to think about how, when, and if we were sharing our why as a mechanism of doing just that. As I began to reflect, I recognized that at one point in my life and career, sharing my why was a central part of knowing me as a colleague, a person, and friend. In thinking about the last time I shared my why with anyone, I am ashamed to say, I could not remember it. After years of sharing it, I almost subconsciously decided that people were tired of hearing about it. In fact, I grew concerned about how others reacted to it or might internalize it and what judgments they might make of me if I continued sharing it freely and openly…and so I realized today that I’d stopped sharing my why.

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Although I have been reluctant to share it in my current professional capacity and in conversations with colleagues, I have never internally silenced it. It wakes me up in the morning and keeps me up at night. It troubles me and it drives me. It gives me great joy and great heartache. I am because it is my purpose, my reason for being on this earth.

I must admit that I was ashamed when we had to turn and talk with our neighbor about sharing our why as advocates of equity. I was honest although it was difficult to say, I hold back, and quite often I can’t seem to find the appropriate space in conversations and meetings to share my why. I’m not sure if that’s accurate or just an excuse, but today I made a renewed commitment to share my why. To be sure others know, without doubt, why this work in public education is so very important to me and central to who I am personally and professionally. The reflection pushed me beyond my comfort zone. I can do more and I promised myself to do that for the sake of those who I am serving. They deserve the absolute best of me and my why gets at just that.

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

Why the Deficit Model in Public Education Counters the Spread and Scale of Best Practice

In an earlier blog post, I wrote about overcoming the deficit mindset in public education. My post concluded with this thought:

There is an enormous opportunity in public education right now for us to create a new view. That perspective is one in which we balance our approach with an assets based culture and exploit the strengths of educators in our effort to mitigate our weaknesses. We can begin by creating a structure that makes the celebration of what is going well in our classrooms, schools, and districts routine and expected. We can create a new narrative, one that elevates the profession and encourages educators to continually find ways to improve at the same time.

If we were to spend our time and efforts on identifying the practices and pedagogy that are working, effective at helping us to achieve the results we desire, that improve both learner outcomes and teacher practices, we’d use our best skills and knowledge to spread and scale what we know is effective. We’d exploit our strengths instead of spending so much of our time identifying the deficits our kids have based on a high stakes assessment. We’d spend more time planning how we would do more of what’s working instead of planning for the implementation of a new concept when our teachers are still attempting to master the ones that were initiated last school year. The constant change in strategy works against us in so many ways. This lack of stability and focus counters the idea that effective concepts should be scaled and spread and we should figure out how to do just that instead of figuring out which new instructional program to implement to address the deficits we’ve identified.

To be clear, I am not suggesting we ignore the areas where our children need additional support. What I am suggesting is that we look to what we know works and find ways to replicate effective practices to address said deficits instead of the addition of new pedagogies that are somewhat experimental in nature when we have yet to see evidence that that the newest innovation works for our students. I was particularly moved last week by a workshop I sat in led by Dr. Anita Archer at the MTSS Innovations Conference. Dr. Archer spent several hours talking to us about the high yield and effective learning strategies and pedagogical methods that are supported by evidence. One particular item she highlighted moved me a great deal. It was a slide with some of John Hattie’s effect sizes for various teaching practices.

When I saw the effect size for problem-based learning I was immediately moved to share the information. I’ve read Hattie’s book, Visible Learning. It’s a critical read for anyone who intends to be an instructional leader. Dr. Archer went on to clarify that there are some critical pre-requisites for problem-based learning to be effective and to me, therein lies the often missing pieces.

She went on to highlight nine essential teaching strategies that can support reducing the variation in instructional effectiveness in our classrooms. I’ll be sharing those in a later post, but many of them can be found in the tool my colleague and I developed: Elements of An Effective Lesson

We’re at a critical point in public education and there is a grave need for us to shift the conversation, the narrative, the mindset, and the work. Our focus needs to be centralized in how we replicate what is working for our students. Our efforts must be driven by their needs and their learning. Far too often, the high stakes assessment environment leads us to abandoning what we know students need or rejecting a concept we know is effective for learning because we are unsure if it will manifest on the test. We must have the courage to do what is best for our students to learn and to improve the practices of teachers. We are professionally and morally obligated to be loyal to their needs well before we are loyal to any high stakes test. I dare you to be courageous!

Until next time! Be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

@latoyadixon5