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If you have any questions please do not hesitate to ask.

Mark P. Murphy
Educational Leadership
The Pennsylvania State University

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Girl in the Pretty Pink Dress

The Girl in the Pretty Pink Dress
By: Marla Susman Israel, Ed.D. Assistant Professor Loyola University Chicago

The Setting:
Before I was a university professor in educational leadership, I was an early childhood center principal. The center I led, which was part of the public school system, contained approximately 350 children ages 3 – 5 years old. Over 80% of the children came from homes of poverty and 90 % of the children were of color. In contrast, the faculty was ethnically, racially and economically diverse. We prided ourselves on serving the whole child and the whole family. Registration was completed by proving residency in the community through a rental lease, electrical bill or social service agency agreement. The parents’ legal status in the country was never questioned. Parents were never asked to provide information about their own past. Our goals were threefold: 1) to provide the highest quality of early childhood learning experiences possible; 2) to ensure that all children who graduated from our program were ready to be successful upon entering kindergarten; and 3) to ensure that all children and their families were treated with respect and dignity, regardless of past or present circumstances.

After five years of being the school principal, I was a well-known entity in the community and with the local police force. Family members were issued a picture ID when their child entered the program and they knew that it had to be presented each time they entered the facility. Guests could only enter the building by providing a photo ID. Weapons and drugs were not tolerated - nor were gang colors or the flashing of signs. These rules were enforced fairly and were respected by all. The police had been called three times during my tenure to assist in the enforcement of these rules. The community’s police chief and I were on good terms. He believed in early intervention and family support as the most effective way to ensure a safe community for the future.

An important tradition at the early childhood center was the annual winter pageant. At the winter pageant, the children would perform songs and dances for their families. The “acts” were low key and everyone was a star. After the performance, we would all go into the multi-purpose room where the faculty and I would serve every person in attendance a home-cooked meal. We would then all break bread together and be grateful for this special occasion. Each year, the faculty and children would truly look forward to this experience. Parents and grandparents would attend. Children who had very little would arrive for this event in their holiday best. Families, who had very hard lives, for a few hours, could enjoy their children and the company of others in a safe and nurturing environment.

The Incident:
It was the Winter Pageant of 2003. As the principal, I was greeting the attendees, helping backstage, and acting as the master of ceremonies. I was on the stage, with a group of squirming four and five-year-olds behind me. I was about to introduce the children and their teacher. As I looked out onto the beaming faces in the audience, I saw at the back of the room the father of one of the children who was on the stage with me. She too saw her father. And with her perfect smile, in her pretty pink dress, she waved to her daddy who was standing there. Since she was standing on the stage in the front row, and was so incredibly sweet-looking, everyone else turned to smile at the person who was receiving such a warm welcome. As they turned, they saw her father. He was a reputed gang-member who was wanted by the police for questioning concerning a violent crime that had recently occurred in the community. But to the girl in the pretty pink dress, she was her daddy who had come to see her in the winter pageant – and she was ecstatic.

The winter pageant went on without incident. The girl in the pretty pink dress ate dinner with her grandparents and her father amongst the community. The grandparents carried their grandchild out the door and to their car, the father following along. I watched this father, this reputed gang-member and possible felon, kiss his little girl good-night, and put her into the car with her grandparents. The grandparents took the girl in the pretty pink dress home. The father drove away in his car. I noted the make of the car and license plate number. Once he left the parking lot, I then called the police.

The Values Audit:
As an educator who has worked extensively with minority populations and young children, I often begin my deliberations with voices unheard. Therefore, I will begin there as a starting point for my analysis. Research and common sense tell us that all individuals need to feel safe from harm. This desire for safety is most critical for young children whose lives are invariably controlled by adults. Likewise, minority populations in this country, a country that is currently fearful of “the other”, need to feel safe in order to be able to function at all. The conflict surrounding the girl in the pretty pink dress turned on the issue of how these unheard voices defined safety.

The families in the center knew that this was a place where their pasts were not questioned. Immigration status, prior police records and prior mistakes were not the point of entry into the center for these families. Admission into the center symbolized a fresh start for these parents and their young children. At the same time, the families also trusted that their young children would be safe from physical harm in the center. The father at the back of the room was a reputed gang-member and possibly involved in a violent crime. However, in this country, one is innocent until proven guilty. Yet, by protecting this foundational claim for this father, I was possibly jeopardizing the immediate physical safety of every individual in attendance that night at the winter pageant. But might I not put the participants in harms way if the police were called immediately and the father reacted violently to their presence?

But I knew that not calling the police while the father was in the center was surely going to damage my relationship with the police force - damage that could have grave repercussions for the future. However, I believed that if I called the police, real pain would occur to the girl in the pretty pink dress. Experience had shown me the destruction of worth that a child experiences when seeing his or her parent dragged away in handcuffs. The question was not whether or not to call the police, the question was at what point in time the call to the police would produce the least amount of harm.

As an administrator in 2003, as I applied the values stated within my professional code to this situation turbulence resulted. As I pondered my next steps, I believed that the following two values as stated within the American Association of School Administrators’ Statement of Ethics (1981) were in direct conflict with one another:
Makes the well-being of students the fundamental value of all decision-making and actions; and,
Supports the principle of due process and protects the civil and human rights of all individuals.

And now as a professor of educational leadership, as I retell this story to my university students and to this blog, I believe the following values from the UCEA Draft Code 2 (Feb. 2008) are in direct conflict with one another within this situation:
Model ethical behavior for others; and,
Value and respect the intrinsic worth of individuals both personally and within multiple communities.

In 2003, I had to decide what type of safety was most valued at that moment and for whom. I chose one child’s well-being over the possible physical harm that could have occurred that night to all the people within the center. I chose respect for one father over possible future harm to the community. I chose to protect the culture of respect and dignity for families trying to create a new life over the obligations I had to the police force that had come to the protection of these very same families in years past.

In a post 911 world, to choose to uphold our basic present values over safety from possible harm in the future is not a popular choice. However, it was the choice I made then. It is a choice that current school administrators must make each day as they create policy to keep their students safe – the individual versus the group, the present values versus a future fear. It is a choice that must be discussed continually as we try to make sense of today’s world.

This post was authored by Marla Israel, Ed.D., and posted by the blog administrator.

Monday, July 28, 2008

All Things to All People

Once my children were of school-age, I decided it was time to pick up the threads of my own teaching career and actively searched for a teaching job again. My context was Ontario, Canada having just moved there from another province. The time was the late nineteen seventies when the public school system in the area was in a declining position – too many young teachers and not enough retirees. No jobs were available and thus I turned to the private system to see what possibilities there might be. I eventually got a job in a private clinic and school that specialized in programming for children with learning disabilities. I became very interested in this area, pursued a specialist and a master’s degree in special education, taught there quite happily for a few years as a teacher and was then offered the position of becoming a teaching administrator and a partner in this enterprise. Finding myself as a partner in a private school was not something I had anticipated as a former public school teacher. But, I took up this new challenge with relish. However, now as an administrator I was involved in setting fees and I was quickly dismayed that our fee structure had to be quite significant just to make ends meet – pay our staff, pay the rent and purchase teaching resources as needed. It was the wealthy clients who could primarily afford our service as there was quite a low pupil-teacher ratio. There was also a small group of parents who made significant sacrifices to send their children – valuing education over their own needs quite obviously. There were no subsidies available to offer clients who could not afford the service. The centre was well respected with students making very good gains. I rationalized the fact we had to charge the dollars we did as despite our fees, I was not personally taking a salary that compared to what I would make in the public system. We were making different kinds of sacrifices as employees to serve kids well. Truth be told, we also had different levels of autonomy and creativity in our programming as well.

I did not feel we really competed with the public system. Rather, it seemed that the public system was having a hard time being all things to all people. The stories we heard from parents indicated that they were looking for a much more personalized education – one which gave their children with learning disabilities hope and self confidence. There were many private schools around us – some ivy league and some small private enterprises like ours. At that time, quality control by the Ministry of Education was limited and only those schools which offered credits were inspected.

By the late eighties, the job market had opened up in the public system and I was ready for a change – a change in opportunity, a change in salary, a change in which I could return to a setting where all kids could be served. I rejoined the public system as a diagnostic and resource teacher and soon began a fortunate career in this setting, moving from teacher to vice principal, principal and superintendent. I completed a doctorate in educational administration in 2004 – focussing my own research on the complexities of collaborative work in a large school system. Large systems have many contradictions to deal with – more resources and many more challenges including how to help people work together in effective ways.

The challenge for me as an individual is to reconcile that at times, in the large system that I am now a part of, we are not able to personalize the education for many children in the way I was able to in a small private system. I am a more fortunate employee as a public servant but now lack the autonomy or creativity I had as private school administrator. The question I continue to wrestle with is what kind of a learning environment best serves students. The one clear advantage I had as a teacher in a private learning clinic was to develop a strong bond with each of my students and to know them really well – their strengths, weaknesses and interests. I would not see more than five to ten students at a time. The students had individual learning plans which were reviewed often. On-going assessment did drive our instruction as adjustments were made on a daily basis. And, as parents were clear advocates for an excellent education …..they were, of course, paying privately after paying their taxes, there was a clear accountability factor for me, as well.

As I consider how my experience as a private school administrator intersects with my public school experience, I acknowledge that the conflict I feel is an intrapersonal one – one which makes me question what the value added piece within large systems as opposed to smaller ones. What do we gain in the way we congregate our weaker students and what do we lose. There is not a clear cut answer in a large public system as to how to personalize education for all children. Our classes are diverse as is the expertise of our teaching staff. I love the bustle of a large school and the spirit that arises when forty adults work with students and create a warm and inviting school community. However, success is not guaranteed for every child in many public schools. Children who have the label of learning disability are often perceived as less able and expectations may not be set as high as they should be. History has shown us that kids do fall between the cracks. Mediocrity can survive in many settings unless there is a clear moral imperative to improve the school culture and student achievement for all students including those with learning differences. Unions often imprint expectations about teacher working conditions that impact student learning conditions and large systems create structures that shape relationships. By contrast, I did find that in a small private setting with a closely knit staff, the relationship with parents and students became quite an intense and closely tracked affair. Results were anticipated and expected while different pressures are felt.

Perhaps the issue is that there is no “best” setting but a need to create settings around the needs of our students and the price of this kind of a setting varies. Ultimately, we need public systems to become “all things to all people” and to develop the kind of flexibility and creativity to serve students in optimal ways. Finally, it appears that on a personal level, rationalization can become a coping mechanism and a way of integrating conflicting value orientations.

This submission was authored by Beate Planche, Ed.D. and posted by the blog administrator.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Who Should Enter the Profession and for What Reasons?

My first year as a junior professor of educational leadership and policy studies at a Midwestern university provided me with an experience that serves as the basis for the title of this essay (“critical incident”). As part of a supervision of instruction class that I teach on a regular basis, I assign a group project where students are challenged to work together to develop a white paper. The white paper deals with advocating for a comprehensive, effective, and differentiated supervision and evaluation system to a specifically targeted audience. The goals of this assignment are manifold, but one important aspect is to get aspiring school leaders to think and work together in collaborative and constructive ways to develop a significant policy advocacy manuscript. This is no small task. In groups of four, and sometimes five, students wrestle with negotiating what to write, what form the paper should take, how to write in a dramatically different way than what they are accustomed to, and of course, figuring the division of labor. I’ve developed an assessment of this group work that is fairly sensitive; so this tool adds tension to the assignment. As you can see, this assignment is also a test of character. From my point of view, this is one of the most important, non-explicit learning goals in the course and presses students to behave as a leader would behave with other leaders.

One student, to remain entirely anonymous, had great difficulty with the assignment and ultimately with the group they worked with. My first indication that the assignment would stretch this person was their intense questioning about the assessment instrument I use to appraise group work for this assignment. Several weeks later I was contacted by another student who shared group membership with “the student.” I was then contacted by “the student.” Both requested an office meeting for the entire group in order to bring some clarification to what I was expecting from group members and the assignment itself. To my knowledge, at the time, both my explanation of the appraisal instrument and follow-up office meeting provided the necessary insight, clarity and guidance for the group to continue with their work.

It was not until the final week of the semester that I was contacted by the associate dean of my college. He told me that a student in my supervision of instruction class, “the student” (he shared their name with me), filed a terroristic threat report against another student in class to university police claiming that another student in the group said they were going to kill me (supposedly because of the challenging group assignment they were dealing with in my class). When I first heard this from the dean, I was in complete disbelief, but soon after the university police and a university detective interviewed me about the report that was filed by “the student” against another student they were supposedly working with to complete the white paper. I was interrogated. I explained to the university law enforcement that in no uncertain terms did I believe the report had merit. I knew the accused student – an advanced doctoral student with many years of professional public school experience and held in high regard throughout the department – and I felt terrible about what was about to happen to them. I was equally infuriated with “the student” who would do such a thing, knowing that for the next several weeks the accused would be dramatically inconvenienced at best and undergo accusation, investigations, scrutiny and emotional pain at worst.

Unfortunately the latter occurred. The accused student had to suffer through multiple police inquiries and several meetings even though I insisted she did nothing, or had any kind of motive, to deserve the accusation. College administration was immensely supportive throughout the entire process, but appeared to be more concerned about the damaged caused to the accused than addressing and confronting the accuser. This process occurred over an entire week.

These days, once a report of this kind is made on a university campus, there is follow through; and “the student” accuser knew that! Because of this fact, “the student” accuser conveniently left the country while the investigation was underway. It was the end of the semester anyhow.

We (college administration, department head, university law enforcement and I) made every effort to console and assure the accused student that they would not be affected, either programmatically or by the accusing student, beyond the terrible incident they had to live through. With the grace and courage so typical of the accused student, and with cheeks wet with tears, they openly accepted our consolation and assurances with one proviso – that we not mention or communicate in any way what had transpired to “the student” accuser – a false and lying manipulator. We accepted the condition. The accused did not want “the student” to have the satisfaction of realizing the terrible ordeal they had caused. This interesting insight was no doubt a result of the accused having to work with and deal with “the student” accuser in a small group. In later conversations with the accused doctoral student, I realized the incredible ordeal it was to work with “the student” in a way that would produce some kind of work product to be submitted for evaluation.

Can all this mess come from an aspiring school leader? What kind of a person was I trying to prepare for one of the most important jobs in the country? I continued to have interactions with “the student,” but I found myself having difficulty dealing with someone with the kind of moral character that was more suited for black market mafia. “The student” completed our program of study, took a master’s degree, acquired state certification to be a building-level principal, and who knows what harm they’re doing! To me, this issue is a problem on multiple fronts, but particularly a moral problem for school leader educators, the university divisions they are housed within, and the profession as a whole.


How can this story and the following analysis play a role in the moral pedagogy of our profession? Before proceeding to the audit I would like to share the following cogent analysis by a professional colleague working in my academic unit.

Professional membership in education (at all levels – if one is to be called an educator) should become normative in a way that membership in other occupations does not! Tomas Green (1987) reminds us that “the term ‘professional ethics’ is a redundancy.” If a person is incapable of performing according to the standards of the profession, then it makes no sense to say that s/he is a member of that profession; the profession, in effect, denies that person’s claim to membership. And this incapacity can be either a matter of skill and knowledge, or one of understanding and judgment. Either will serve to disqualify a claimant for legitimate professional membership. One lacking in the commitments proper to a profession is not a member of that profession.

Quote taken from Covaleskie, J. F., & Howley, A. “Education and the commons: Issues of “professionalization.” Educational Foundations, 8, 4, 59-73.

Citation taken from Green, T. F. (1987). The conscience of leadership. In L. T. Sheive & M. B. Schoenheit (Eds.), Leadership: Examining the elusive. (pp. 105-115). Reston, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

1. The stakeholders in the story are obvious. College administration was immensely supportive throughout the entire process, but accepting the condition of the accused student relinquished any kind of student judiciary process, or other psychological support and/or disciplinary measure, that could have cut short the accusers path toward leading a public institution. Even if the accused student would have been open to investigating the incident further or filing counter charges of some kind, I wonder if the program, college or university would have been prepared to respond in some constructive manner to a student with, what I believe to be, severe character flaws. Additionally, I wonder why we allowed this student into the program in the first place! We need to do a better job interviewing people who want to learn the tools to be an education administrator, let alone try to discover an elusive leadership.

2. Interpersonal conflict with institutional ramifications.

3. There was commitment to doing harm, commitment to not responding to harm in order to cut it short and hopefully end it, commitment to help and care, commitment to get to the truth, commitment to self-examine the effectiveness of our program admission practices (at least on a personal level).

4. Although individual rights were violated – false accusation (for whatever motivation), rights were also upheld in assurances to protect from bodily harm. Some rights were abrogated, such as responding to your accuser.

5. All arenas of practice are relevant in this critical incident. For me, the real issue is the arena of the profession. People are people and they will err – morally err. That’s a fact. What does the profession do – the profession that prepares the profession – in order to get great people doing great work, knowing that sometimes good people do stupid, immoral, even terrible things out of character; or that “bad apples” need to be thrown out? You just can’t turn your head and wish you didn’t graduate the student.

6. I think benefit maximization was reached for most stakeholders. Maximizing benefit for the accusing student was not achieved – there needed to be a response, in my own opinion. “The student” needed to be confronted, helped and disciplined in some way. Yet I do believe honoring the accused student’s wishes takes precedence. Therefore, some parties benefit more than others. Remember, it was reasoned that the accusing student wanted satisfaction of knowing the pain and trouble they had caused, and subsequently, because of an agreement, did not become aware of any incident transpiring from their report to the police.

7. The values in conflict can be named. The values for the profession that prepares the profession can be named as well. If you’re under pressure, not trying to understand others’ points of view, sense a lack of confidence in your own abilities, fumble around at negotiating tasks, and force and manipulate others to get what you want, and then compensate by falsely accusing someone of something terrible, you really shouldn’t be leading a school!

8. The values in conflict can be named. The turbulent damage is situated immediately at the personal level. By accepting lots of academically qualified, warm, paying bodies into a preparation program, in other words, what’s good for the college/university, might not be good for the profession, ultimately! We need to do a better job interviewing people for admission to the program.

9. I am not satisfied with the ends and purposes of this story on a professional and institutional level – the means and solutions are flawed so the ends and purposes are not achieved. (Scrutinizing leader aspirants for both skill and character would improve means and solutions toward ends and purposes.) I am satisfied with the ends and purposes of this story on a self, personal and group level, for the most part. The means and solutions in response to the situation are appropriately matched to desired outcomes – especially for the accused student.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Vermont Common Core of Learning: Process, Product, and Turbulence

The Vermont Common Core of Learning: Process, Product, and Turbulence
Steven Jay Gross,
Temple University
The Case:
This is an old event but one that still makes me wonder. In 1990 I became Chief of Curriculum and Instruction for the state of Vermont. As soon as I got to the post, the Commissioner called me into his office to describe a remarkable opportunity. I was asked to chair a new initiative called the Vermont Common Core of Learning. It was my job to identify the central ideas that all of the state’s 100, 0000 students needed to know and the skills that they needed to be able to perform.
I quickly saw the potential for trouble. For one thing our state’s culture of local control meant that ideas coming from above were automatically regarded with suspicion. Therefore, using the typical blue ribbon panel to draft the Common Core seemed a poor idea. Building on successful work already started at the University of Vermont, I supported the approach of training local people to facilitate focus forums around the state based on the model of the New England town meeting. Our central question was: ‘What do all learners need to know and be able to do in order to be successful in the 21st century?’
I was elated when the Commissioner and the state board went along with this approach. Using the focus forums, we gathered important directions for our state’s curriculum vision and reports from around the state were positive. I made it my business to lead many of these gatherings and it was powerful to see groups ranging from 30 to 120 community members work together in common purpose.
Then the trouble started. The first sign of a storm cloud came when we met with representatives of the state’s corporations. They had participated in the forums and seemed to appreciate the quality of our work. The researcher in me made the mistake of becoming exuberant over finding patterns among the growing number of focus forums. I naïvely told the group, “I can now almost predict what people will say are the four major categories of ideas they want all of our students to know.” I expected curiosity and a lively conversation. What I got was impatience. “If you can tell me what people will say, why are you still conducting these forums?” was the reply of one business executive. The Commissioner agreed. My protest that the process was critical to keeping the public engaged was barely tolerated and I left the meeting with butterflies. This episode was followed by other meetings where the Commissioner said such things as, “I am feeling trapped by this process.” Then came a newspaper editorial blasting forum results. We had run out of time. Before long, the work that my team and I believed in was considered passé by those in charge and the Department shifted its focus elsewhere.

The Values Audit:
Because I think a lot about turbulence, it may be easiest to start with Turbulence Theory as a way into this problem. First, I think that our focus forum approach was a good example of positive turbulence. By that I mean, we took a moribund issue such as statewide curriculum discussions and made it come alive by shaking up communities with a process that engaged many people who were rarely included in conversations of this type. We took a light turbulent condition (wherein few people debated the idea of statewide curriculum patterns) and raised the turbulence level to moderate. When the leaders of the Department lost patience with our work, the level shot up to severe, then extreme causing the focus forum process to end while other state-sponsored curriculum projects took its place.
Again, using Turbulence Theory, we can consider the underlying forces of stability, positionality, and cascading to go deeper. As Chief of Curriculum and Instruction for the state of Vermont, I had some authority and my support created enough stability for the innovation to launch and develop through the first several months. What I did not appreciate was how quickly stability could erode without the support of those above me. My position also colored my approach. I was deeply impressed with the level and quality of participation of community members in our forums. But the leaders of the Department had a different perspective that reflected their position. They needed to show what they considered to be results. Process to me was a kind of result. For them, it was only a route to something concrete. They seemed to feel if they did not accomplish their goals in short order, someone else could replace them who would. Finally, as one set of external power groups, in this case the business organizations, showed displeasure with our work, others joined in. The cascading of one negative opinion onto the next made it easier for the momentum against continuing the forums to gain speed. This made it easier for those at the top of the Department to lose the will to continue.
Using the Multiple Ethical Paradigms 1 I would say that I emphasized the ethics of critique, care, and the profession. I questioned the blue ribbon panel because I thought it was elitist. In that model, the public only gets to comment on the work of others, if that. The ethic of care kept me thinking of accessing all possible ideas for our curriculum and the ethic of the profession made the best interests of learners the central focus of all of our work.
I am grateful for the time that I had to pursue the Common Core focus forums. Groups including parents, community members, and young people were honored and engaged in the basic work of building Vermont’s curriculum. However, I also appreciate the fact that movements come along in their own season and that time runs out for each of them. Continuing the forums meant more than having a good idea and arguing for what was right for so many thousands of participants. Now I see the problem from other perspectives and the need to build coalitions to support this kind of innovation.

1. Space limits prevent me from a detailed discussion of the Multiple Ethical Paradigms. I would be happy to delve into that dimension should anyone in the project care to hear it