Saturday, April 29, 2006

"The harder you work, the luckier you get."

I can’t remember where I encountered this aphorism or which corporate titan was quoted, but it’s a fitting lead-in to this posting, which offers a fresh take on Cheryl’s Removing Luck from the Education Equation of 25 April.

Among those who weather “tough luck” years or periods at JIS, students with mild learning or neurological differences and their families are, I suspect, overrepresented. Admittedly, I don’t have access to any formal research that might back up this hunch. It’s an impression developed in talking with parents at advisory forum meetings, PTA gatherings, and other school events. Should the community at large be concerned?

To some extent, it already is. Participants in the ownership perception audit commissioned by the School Council voiced the opinion that students with special needs should receive learning support that will enable them to flourish. I share this view. As a matter of fairness or equity, JIS has a responsibility to provide an excellent educational product to all students, particularly since everyone pays the same high fees.

Policy decisions are often envisioned as a “zero-sum game,” in which a concession won by one interest group – such as students with special needs – results in a loss for another interest group – such as students who don’t have special needs. I suspect that is why audit participants also agreed with the policy decision to have parents bear the cost of more intensive “Level 2” learning support, and were skeptical about opening school doors to kids with more serious disabilities. While I don’t have the knowledge or expertise to offer an opinion on the second issue, I agree in principle with audit participants on the first.

I say ‘in principle’ because ESOL students do not pay one penny extra for the services they receive. Perhaps JIS needs to review current policies and practices with a view to ensuring that these two interest groups are treated equitably. And in revising ends policy or answering the questions “Who does JIS serve?” “What does it produce for those served?” and “At what relative cost?” perhaps Council should set negative or proscriptive limits for the Executive along the lines of: “The Executive will not fail to set equitable policies for special interest groups within the student population.” Of course, Council would also need to define ‘equitable.’ For example, school resources might be allocated on the basis of the share of total revenues contributed by a given interest group.

But the far more important point I want to make is this: With careful attention to the underlying needs of different interest groups and creative thinking, policy makers can achieve winning outcomes for everyone.

In fact, JIS administrators have already taken an important step in developing such a “win/win” policy. Have you heard of the professional development program focusing on “differentiated instruction” (aka DI)? Now in its second year, the program seeks to build the capacity of teachers and staff to assess and actively respond to students’ diverse needs.

The blog has addressed the topic of JIS’ intense multiculturalism. But diversity assumes many other forms at the school. Every student comes to JIS with different background knowledge based in part on their cultural backgrounds, different readiness to learn the curriculum, different mother tongues and varying proficiency in English, different learning styles or preferences, and different interests. Some students are gifted, others have special needs or function below grade level in one or more subjects, with the majority falling somewhere in between. All students have the right to expect enthusiastic teachers who are ready to meet them as they are, and to move them along the pathway of learning as far and as fast as possible.

DI synthesizes and builds on educational research documenting best practices of the kind Cheryl has rightly focused our attention on. Remember the article she shared on formative assessment i.e. using homework, deskwork, discussions, tests, etc. to learn about student needs and strengthen instruction? It is a central element of DI. She has also begun to discuss the importance of standards-based, content-rich curriculum. DI uses standards not as the end or goal of teaching, but as a vital means for helping students to achieve their personal best. As one expert explains:

“The goal of a differentiated classroom is maximum student growth and individual success. As schools now exist, our goal is often to bring everyone to “grade level” or to ensure that everyone masters a prescribed set of skills in a specified length of time. We then measure everyone's progress only against a predetermined standard. Such a goal is sometimes appropriate, and understanding where a child's learning is relative to a benchmark can be useful. However, when an entire class moves forward to study new skills and concepts without any individual adjustments in time or support, some students are doomed to fail. Similarly, classrooms typically contain some students who can demonstrate mastery of grade-level skills and material to be understood before the school year begins — or who could do so in a fraction of the time we would spend “teaching” them. These learners often receive an A, but that mark is more an acknowledgment of their advanced starting point relative to grade-level expectations than a reflection of serious personal growth. In a differentiated classroom, the teacher uses grade-level benchmarks as one tool for charting a child's learning path. However, the teacher also carefully charts individual growth. Personal success is measured, at least in part, on individual growth from the learner's starting point—whatever that might be.”

“Joyful tidings!” you may say. The catch? DI is a significant departure from the way most teaching is conducted and requires strong and skillful leadership to be institutionalized throughout schools and school districts. As the same expert quoted above puts it,

“The reality…is that many…students will encounter a teacher who is enmeshed in a system geared up to treat all 1st graders as though they were essentially the same, or all Algebra I students as though they were alike. Classrooms and schools are rarely organized to respond well to variations in student readiness, interest, or learning profile.”

And indeed, some expert observers believe JIS needs to accelerate its efforts to institutionalize DI. As we all know, organizational change is very challenging. What’s in it for school staff? To borrow Cheryl’s metaphor, why should they shed that last 10 pounds? Or to use the terms of this posting, how will they “win” or benefit from this sea-change in school policy?

Here’s one compelling answer to the question: SURVIVAL! As in any organization, the school’s long-term health depends on its ability to respond effectively to changes in its environment. In the past, JIS has had a reputation as an elite school. During the heady mid-90’s, when foreign investment was high, the school could choose the “cream of the crop” from among applicants. When Indonesia’s economic and political crises hit in the late 90’s, JIS suffered serious declines in enrollment. To maintain its financial health, it had to downsize staff and begin admitting a student body that was more diverse, both academically and culturally. Long-serving faculty and staff may find it especially difficult to adjust to these changes, but the school’s future depends on it. The better JIS is able to respond to the needs of diverse students or constituencies, the better equipped it will be to “roll with the punches.” In other words, if JIS is able to provide an excellent service to many different kinds of students using DI, it will be better able to respond to the ever-shifting demographic profile of Jakarta’s expatriate community.

Pardon the length of this posting. The takeaway or “homework” for parents?

  • Study the web link above and others to learn more about DI. The blog will continue to address this topic, by the way.
  • Entertain the following possibilities: a) Even if your child enjoys school and receives good grades, he or she may fall well short of achieving optimal academic growth. b) The fortunes of your child's special-needs classmates may be the best indication of how well JIS is able to maximize the personal growth of all kids, including your own.
  • Use all available forums and channels to express support for DI and to ask school leaders for reports on progress in institutionalizing it.
  • Ask your child's teacher how DI is put into practice in the classroom.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Looking critically at curriculum

You've probably noticed that JIS Topics talks a lot about curriculum. It's a HUGE subject in education. (In fact, it's one of the four things schools can focus on to "remove luck from the education equation.") But many readers may not feel qualified to talk about curriculum -- or worse, they've been told by educators that they lack the knowledge to be part of the conversation.

Well, guess what? We all, as parents, are qualified! Here's why the old mindset that says parents shouldn't be part of the curriculum discussion are "so yesterday":
  • As parents, we see the successes (and sometimes failures) of the implemented curriculum on a daily basis. Just think about your child's homework, the projects and workshares at school, the student work you see at parent-teacher conferences.....it's all evidence of a school's curriculum. You can see whether your child is engaged and excited about a subject, or if there's a disconnect. While no curriculum will be perfect for every child, alarm bells should go off if more than a few parents see a disconnect at home.
  • For parents coming from the United States, the "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) has openned up the world of curriculum, giving them a wealth of information about their school. The new-found freedom of choice in their childrens' education has brought parents to the education policy table.
  • Parents in the community, themselves, are an often-untapped resource on specific subject matters. Think of the accountant (math), the geologist (earth science), the writer (language arts), the medical researcher (biology), the anthropologist (social studies), the engineer (physics)....our community has people who know what's important in their subject areas. That makes them rich curriculum resources!
  • Parents now have a multitude of resources to learn from on curriculum. Just check out some of the following links, which help parents discover what's being taught:
The Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) Compendium of Curriculum and Benchmarks -- a searchable database of "best practice" curricula in each subject area from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Achieve.org's Benchmarks and Samples of curriculum for English and math. This group, founded by a group of US governors and business leaders, has worked with universities and businesses to establish a set of standards that aims to prepare students for post-secondary education and high-performance jobs. It's controversial, but interesting.

Core Knowledge Foundation's website, with information and data on the importance of focusing on content in curriculum design.

The Center for Performance Assessment put together this VERY helpful webpage that lists links to every US state's education standards and curriculum frameworks.

The last link is particularly interesting for parents who are coming from -- or perhaps returning at some point -- to the United States. One of the outcomes of the No Child Left Behind Act is that states each have established standards that schools must achieve to receive federal education funding. This is a huge deal -- and for parents, it's yielded a bucketload of information. Some states (such as Texas) even include sample tests that they use to assess student ability.

Yikes. That's a lot of stuff -- too much for any one parent to read and absorb! But what this points out is that, as a community, we ALL can play a role in discussing curriculum at JIS. There's no Perfect Curriculum, but there always are ways to grow, inquire, and improve. The question is, how do we start that discussion at JIS?

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Carnival of Education: for serious wonks only

If you're like me, this whole blogging thing is a brave new world ( in a good way instead of creepy). But how to separate the wheat from the chaff?

If you like this blog world but find it overwhelming, check out the latest Carnival of Education, a weekly round-up of edu-blogging that pulls together some of the best (and wierdest) in educational thinking from the worldwide web. This week the Education Wonks play host to the Carnival -- it gets passed around to keep it fresh. Of particular interest to my family: a posting from "The Thomas Institute" blog on the (probably-rarely-considered) dangers of MySpace.com.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

An apology....

Update on the April 22nd posting: "How does a community discuss the undiscussables"? I just got an email from my (very wise) dad, who told me I was "a bit hard on the person who commented" about the demographic issues at JIS. After re-reading this post, I totally agree. I broke my own rule of writing (don't do it when you're upset), and my words were harsh. So to the anonymous person who bravely stepped forward and commented on this issue, I apologize. I am so sorry if I made you feel your views aren't valid. They are, and I should have found a better way to write my opinion. I hope you'll forgive me.

Cheryl

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Removing "luck" from the education equation

Ask around in the school community, and you're most likely to bump into people who's kids are having an amazing experience at JIS. The teachers are fantastic...the educational program is super...it's all good.

But every once in a while, you'll run into someone with a different story. Struggles with a teacher, a curriculum that isn't all it could be, a worry about falling off-pace with home-country schools.... When those tales surface, the usual response is a sad-but-sympathetic smile, an arm around the shoulder, and a "I'm so sorry... tough luck."

After all, everyone has a bad school year once in a while. And no school can possibly get it right for every student, every year.

But are there things schools can do to minimize the "tough luck" years? Yes!
  • Ensure the school has a strong, standards-based curriculum that's content-rich (and specific) so that all teachers -- even those who might be teaching outside of their subject-area "comfort zones" -- can easily understand what they're teaching and the outcomes they're aiming at.
  • Maintain a strong professional development program for teachers that helps them stay current on best practices and methods of teaching that improve student performance.
  • Create a collegial environment (see April 18th posting, "Organizational Culture: the Elephant in the Room" for a reminder of what that looks like), so that teachers feel comfortable admitting problems (after all, teaching is tough!) and using each other as resources.
  • Develop a professional supervision program that supports teachers by giving them timely, constructive feedback about their practice in a non-punitive, non-threatening way.
These ideas don't break any new ground in the education world, nor at JIS. In fact, these strategies are the bedrock upon which great schools are built. But the question should always be, "are we doing all we can do? Are there areas we could strengthen and improve?" At the end of the day, no student's education each year should depend on luck.

Monday, April 24, 2006

A month of tracking the blog

Today is the one-month anniversary of tracking JIS Topics via Site Meter, and here are some facts for your enjoyment:

  • JIS Topics has been visited nearly 500 times (493 to be exact)
  • The average visit lasts 6 minutes and 39 seconds
  • JIS Topics gets an average of 28 visits every day
  • We have guests from around the world checking in to JIS Topics, including viewers from Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Belgium, the United States, Singapore, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

Thank you so much for checking into the blog. We're working hard to make sure that it focuses on the important issues that are shaping education policy in the global picture -- and those closer to home here at JIS. Our goal is to start discussion, provide high-quality resources and information, and encourage all of us in the JIS community to tackle the tough issues that face every school striving for excellence.

If there are topics you'd like to raise, ideas you'd like to share, or complaints you'd like to lodge, please -- dive right in! In any community of learners, the more...the merrier. And thanks again from the bottom of our hearts.

"Pathways to Reform" -- why values matter

Here's a great article from the February 2005 issue of Educational Leadership (a publication of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, or ASCD). It's still incredibly relevant, even a year and a half later -- which is an eternity in educational policy and research.

In "Pathways to Reform: Start with Values," David J. Ferrero (director of education research and evaluation at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) delves into the topic of values -- and how values affect the education systems we develop. It's not just an intellectual exercise! According to Ferrero:

"One crucial but often overlooked source of the distinctiveness among high-performing schools is philosophy—the beliefs and values that create our sense of what makes life worth living, and therefore what is worth teaching and how we should teach it. In our drive to be “research-based,” we tend to forget that between the science of learning and the practice of teaching lie important value judgments that color our reading of the research and the implications for practice we derive from it. These value judgments reflect deeply held philosophical worldviews."

Ferrero gives specific examples of the types of schools that have sprung up -- all with widely varying approaches to education -- based on carefully thought-out value systems. He also gives an excellent history on the debates about educational philosophy that have shaped education reform efforts over the past decades.

So if you want to understand how schools can differ in their approach, yet all aim at helping students achieve the highest levels of academic and civic success, then spend a few minutes (okay, more like 15 minutes!) reading this article. It's worth your time!

Saturday, April 22, 2006

How does a community discuss the "undiscussables"?

Yesterday's posting on "Nurturing a Culture of Teamwork" generated a thought-provoking comment that raises an important, but sensitive issue:

"I remain much less concerned about the culture of teamwork on the adult level than on the profound changes in the culture of our children at school/sports/play/parties as a result of the huge number of incredibly affluent national students."

I don't know.... I'm a big believer in what Samuel Butler (the 17th century English poet and satirist) said in his famous work Hudibras, Part II:

As the ancients
Say wisely, have a care 'o the main chance
And look before you ere you leap;
For as you sow, you are like to reap.

Students don't establish a school's culture. Adults do. We need to create the frameworks and scaffolds of shared values within which we expect students to operate and behave -- and then we need to provide them with the tools they need to live up to our expectations. In other words, if we, as an adult community, don't actively build a climate that nurtures mutual respect, empathy, kindness, openness -- and all the other values and character traits that we hold dear -- then we can't expect students to magically create that kind of culture by themselves.

But here's the bigger problem with the comment: it points a finger at a specific nationality, which is divisive and hurtful. Instead of focusing on race or nationality, isn't it better to focus on the behavior that's the problem? After all, no one nationality has a lock on bad behavior.

Better yet, wouldn't it be more helpful to create a conversation that encourages us, as a community, to zero-in on the values that we want our students to embody? Those types of values (things like perserverence, humility, empathy, kindness) don't have ethnic or socio-economic boundries. Talking about the kind of people we want our children to become is much more constructive than dividing the community into national or economic categories.

Let me give you an example. The high school district where I grew up (on Chicago's "North Shore") can only be described as fabulously wealthy. I'm talking mansions, super-luxury cars, swanky shopping, vacation homes in northern Michigan...in other words, rare air. While not all students came from families of preposterously huge net worth, everyone was immersed in an environment of extreme priviledge.

Yet amazingly, I don't remember this as ever causing a problem. Here's why: the school actively nurtured a culture of humbleness and debt to society. Teachers and administrators practically beat this message into the students: "You have been given incredible gifts -- the gift of an amazing education, freedom from need and want, and the opportunity to reach your full potential. But with this these gifts come duties. It is your duty to make the most of these gifts, and then to give back to the world."

This culture of noblesse oblige permeated almost every aspect of school life. No student doubted that great things were expected of him or her. In fact, when I returned to the school more than 20 years later to teach English, this cultural construct had been codified into a school motto: "To commit minds to inquiry, hearts to compassion, and lives to the service of humanity."

Every student knows this motto. It's all over the school website. It's on many teachers' websites. You see it in the hallways. It's even been copyrighted. The motto is so important that it's the foundation of the school's mission statement. Students may roll their eyes when they hear it, but somewhere underneath their tough exteriors, this message is being woven into their psyche like a pattern in ikat cloth.

The payoff for this carefully crafted cultural environment: academic success (e.g. the United States' highest scoring school on the ACT) and a roll of graduates that reads like a who's-who in American politics, science and culture (Donald Rumsfeld, Scott Turow, Archibald MacLeish, Dr. Mary Claire King, Charlton Heston, Ann Margret, Liz Phair, John Stossel....etc. etc.). And the best thing: it's just a great place to be. There's a buzz in the hallways between classes of excitement, purpose, and anticipation. It's not always perfect, but it's a good model of how to try.

I'm not saying that demographics -- and the important decisions JIS must make regarding ensuring diversity while maintaining the school's primary mission of educating expatriate students -- are unimportant. After all, demographics directly affect issues like discipline, classroom instruction, communications with families, and student interactions. Pretending that these issues don't exist won't make them go away.

Discussions on demographics and their cultural ramifications should be honest, open and frank. But at the same time, as a community we should be extremely sensitive to the feelings of all involved, and frame the conversation in terms of the values, character traits and behaviors we want to nurture in our kids.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Nurturing a culture of teamwork

If I never type, hear, or say the word collaboration again, it will be too soon. I almost put myself into an apoplectic fit yesterday over that word and the lack of it that's happened lately at JIS. So I'm moving on to a less jargon-y word: TEAMWORK.

Actually, teamwork is probably more precise in terms of what a school like JIS should be striving for. That c-word is a little fluffy, a tad bit vague. Who's in charge? What does it look like?

(WARNING: HUGE GRATUITOUS SPORTS METAPHOR AHEAD)

Teamwork
implies that there's a coach (in the case of a school -- the headmaster or superintendent). There are team captains (principals). There are the players in the trenches -- sorry for the mixed metaphors, but stick with me -- who have the actual experience on the field (the teachers). You've got the 2nd string, learning from the veterans on the field (students). There are supporters in the stands (parents), trainers (the school nurse), facilities managers (grounds keepers), and security. You've even got a front office (the school council), controlling the pursestrings and setting the overall strategy.

If any one group in the team falls down on the job, the team won't succeed. They have to work together, in concert. The best teams are those in which all members respect each other and dedicate themselves to the greater good of the team -- even at the expense of their own personal comfort.

But what if the team isn't working in concert? How can it get back on track?

(END OF GRATUITOUS SPORTS METAPHOR)

The first step is admitting that you have a problem. If JIS can honestly look itself in the eye and say, "you know, we're really working well together as an organization," then we have nothing to talk about. But I sense that there are those -- especially amongst the parents -- who are feeling incredibly left out of the process.

You may be asking, "But what if we truly don't know whether we've got a teamwork problem or not?" Good question. When schools feel that first tinge of worry that "something's rotten in the state of Denmark," they have several tools at their disposal:

  • Schools can establish a task force on school climate that includes representatives from all corners of the school -- including students, faculty, staff, adminstration and parents.
  • Schools can undertake an educational audit, a powerful tool that help schools objectively assess their realities. This is not an operational audit (which evaluates the effectiveness of an organization's finances, procedures, and operations). Instead, an educational audit examines how well a school does at creating a vibrant culture of teamwork, and how it does at the business of education: teaching students, developing and supervising teachers, creating strong curricula.... If you'd like to see what an educational audit looks like, click here for a good example of the organizational-culture section of one. And click here for an executive summary of the full audit report. And no, these don't have to be slick or expensive. Several educational foundations and universities have created high-quality, free (or inexpensive) tools for schools to use. (To give you an example, Indiana University has a survey of student engagement -- tried and tested by more than 200,000 students to date -- that gathers "actionable information on school characteristics that shape the student experience." It would cost less than $2,000 for a school of JIS' size.
  • Schools can enter into honest, forthright dialogue with the groups who feel they're being left out of the process. This is a no-brainer. It doesn't cost anything. It doesn't require bucket-loads of time setting up charters or labrynth procedures and rules. You just sit down and talk.
Now, in terms of the educational audit, some may argue that JIS has already done that with its focus group research of the moral ownership in October 2005. And they'd be part right. Those ownership audits are a good start; but if you attended any of the forums, you'll have noticed that the perception audits missed several significant educational issues. (Remember the post-it-note exercise? In the two forums I attended, more comments were targeted at the "What Else?" category -- in other words, "what the research didn't cover" -- than on any single issue of concern.)

So we've got some good information. But we should be asking, what other topics need to be explored before we're ready to pat ourselves on the back and say we've done all we can do? And again, John Carver supports ongoing research when he says about focus groups:

"This is not a sporadic or single-purpose effort, but an unending process. These carefully planned interactions are not for public relations, but for the dual purpose of enhancing board understanding and reinforcing the public's sense of ownership of its schools."

So there you have it: some suggestions on where to go from here in our efforts to work as a team on behalf of our students at JIS..... This isn't a comprehensive list of ideas, and you may think I'm a moron. Or better yet, you may have other, more excellent ideas. Either's okay. Just please explain your thoughts so that we all -- as a community -- can become smarter and wiser. After all, it's all about collab....I mean teamwork.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Starting at the top: Collaboration at council

Wow....it's like this blog has psychic powers! For the past few days, we've discussed collaboration and the critical role it plays in creating and maintaining a fruitful organizational culture. Well, I've just returned from the JIS school council meeting, and I can report that "Grease" isn't the word at our school -- it's COLLABORATION.

I heard it over and over tonight: What's the key to a successful council? Collaboration! What will next year's professional development program focus on? Collaboration! It's all about collaboration, collaboration, collaboration. We'll have so much talk at JIS about the mantra of collaboration that soon we'll all be group-hugging and singing Kumbaya!

There's only one problem: collaboration is more than just a word. It's an action. It's a state of mind. Either it's a genuine component of an organization's culture, or it's not. Just saying the word doesn't make it so....

Collaboration requires (as you'll already know, if you've read the past few postings) actual planning and hard work -- and then, a reality check.

Tonight's council meeting was my reality check. There was a great deal of talk about "norms of collaboration" (which some JIS campuses use to ensure that group discussions are productive and respectful). Excellent! These are good things!

But at the very same meeting, no one other than council members, the headmaster, the business manager, and the curriculum coordinator were allowed to speak. When the issue of removing the PTA's right to sit at the council table came up as part of a review of the JIS bylaws, no one asked for the opinion of the PTA representative, who was sitting right there. Now that's irony. Norms of collaboration at a non-collaborative meeting!

But the bigger, sadder irony is that only two parents attended the meeting, so even under the best circumstances, there wasn't going to be much collaborating. After all, collaboration implies teamwork, working together toward a common goal, and considering different ideas and opinions -- and that's hard to do with such a limited group of voices.

Now I know council is swimming into uncharted waters with the issue of collaboration. Historically, its monthly meetings haven't been well-attended by parents, nor structured in a way that encourages dialogue or discussion. (If you don't believe that, see if you can answer this question: what does it take for a parent to get an item on the agenda for a council meeting?) True collaboration -- that is more than just lip service -- can be messy, unpredictable, and even frightening.

But we should ask the JIS council to review again John Carver's wise words about the structure of board meetings from his article, "Remaking Governance: The creator of 'Policy Governance' Challenges School Boards to Change" (American School Board Journal, March 2000):

"Board meetings are spent learning diverse points of view on what is most important for schools to produce, differing projections of future needs of students, and any other wisdom that helps in making wise long-term decisions about ends. The public is integral to these meetings, but carefully organized so the board gets representative input."

While much of tonight's meeting centered around creating mechanisms and processes for managing and controlling the "regular Joe's" participation in council's monthly meetings (e.g. What constitutes a delegation? How many signatures are required to get an item on the agenda? What types of issues can a parent bring forward at the meeting? How long does someone have to speak? At what point during the meeting?) -- precious little was spent talking about how to bring people to the table. And that's a shame.

So we're back again to the quadumvirate of adults at JIS -- the administration, council, teachers, and parents -- and we need to ask ourselves, are we moving in the direction of true collaboration? This is more than just a theoretical question. As a community, our success or failure directly affects our children and the education they receive. Actions speak louder than words. Here's to hoping that council will lead the way -- as it has begun to do with its series of six open forums on the focus-group research -- as we move forward towards a better JIS for our students.

(P.S. Tomorrow's posting will get back on track to discuss collaboration and culture change beyond just the school council. But my mind was all twisted up in a knot after tonight's meeting....)

Managing Diversity: Reflections on the Ownership Perception Audit

Managing Diversity: Reflections on the Ownership Perception Audit


Fresh from the audit feedback session I attended at PEL Tuesday, I offer a few thoughts on managing diversity.

Council begins feedback sessions with a Power Point presentation summarizing the audit findings. Details from the data – and especially quotes from those who participated in focus group discussions and interviews – helped me understand exactly what was at issue in the Executive Summary circulated to all parents. By the way, I hope Council will make the complete audit report available either as an email attachment or as a PDF file on the school website. Edited as necessary to protect the anonymity of participants, it can serve as a valuable learning tool for the entire community.

Among other things, audit participants voiced concern about “culture clashes” and “segregation” by nationality, particularly at the secondary level. While there was fairly strong support for the idea that diversity strengthens and enriches everyone, moral owners believe JIS lacks clear core values or that the school hasn't been entirely successful in harnessing diversity to advance educational goals. To hazard a link to Cheryl's recent postings, the challenges of achieving a healthy and productive organizational culture are magnified in an international school setting, which is intensely multicultural.

And though Cheryl will have her own recommendations for how to meet the challenge in her next posting, I am suggesting here that ongoing discussion of the school's mission or ends is an important opportunity for building an effective common culture that “leverages” diversity in the JIS community. The ownership perception audit has launched the discussion, which will continue in a series of steps Council laid out at the feedback sessions. Stay tuned next fall for forums to discuss ends issues that surfaced in the audit! Unless the views of many stakeholders or moral owners are heard, respected, and acted on, the effort to sharpen or redefine ends policy will not be widely owned.

Because JIS is an international private school that is actively chosen by its patrons, all students naturally have an interest learning to:

1) Achieve their highest academic, social, emotional, ethical, and physical potential;
2) Effectively navigate a globalized world by embracing and bridging cultural differences and by harnessing diversity in the pursuit of excellence; and
3) Maintain their own cultural identity wherever life takes them.

In one form or another, these ends are already reflected in JIS’ current mission statement as well as the "Essential Qualities of a JIS Learner," both of which can be found in the “About Us” link on the website. However, the audit findings indicate that moral owners either do not regard these ends as core values, perceive a gap between “what JIS says and what JIS does,” or believe some ends are not fully realized. For example, some Asian participants complained that the Western approach to education, and the willingness to question authority in particular, would make their children pariahs in their home cultures.

Could it be that current ends continue to be relevant to the school's future, but the means for achieving them need to be strengthened? Though Council’s focus has shifted from means to ends since adopting the Carver model of governance a few years ago, it still has an important oversight function: to ensure that JIS’ leadership adopts effective means for achieving ends.

The 3 ends above are interrelated and support each other. To a large extent, JIS’ diversity derives from individual cultural identities. In turn, the experience of cultural diversity or learning from others’ perspectives and experiences fosters students’ ability to function optimally in a globalized world, while also helping them to achieve personal excellence or their highest potential.

Still, any school has to make strategic decisions about resource allocations. In my opinion, JIS should devote the bulk of its resources to ends 1 and 2, while acting as a catalyst or facilitator for end 3. At the same time, I believe the school needs to refocus its commitment to ends 2 and 3, either at a marginal additional cost or through some reallocation of current resources.

For example, classroom activities and school ceremonies for UN Day help students construct and showcase their cultural identities. But could more be done along these lines without breaking the bank? The body of literature on “global nomads," "third culture kids,” and "transitioning" offers practical steps expatriate families can take to promote a sense of rootedness in their children and to facilitate re-entry into the home culture. Wikipedia has a useful overview of this literature and includes relevant websites. With some professional development, JIS counselors might host regular talks on the subject and offer counseling services to families and perhaps even some instruction to students.

Regarding End 2, perhaps more thought and attention needs to be given to the specific, curriculum-based skills students need to navigate an international school and a globalized world. There are contenders from growing bodies of knowledge, including:

- Diversity management,
- Inter-cultural learning and conflict resolution,
- Classroom culture,
- Character or moral education and "just communities."

Educators for Social Responsibility not only sell materials on conflict resolution for grades K-12, but also advise schools on how best to integrate them into what is usually an already crowded curriculum. In my opinion, no life skill could be more valuable for students...whether at home or abroad.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Organizational culture: the elephant in the room

Yesterday's blog post, "Changing Organizational Culture," focused on the business example of Home Depot, which -- facing a plummeting stock price and a business model that didn't match its current business reality -- underwent a massive change in culture over a two-year period.

This change wasn't happenstance, or willy-nilly. Quite the opposite. Home Depot's leaders meticulously planned and implemented a multi-step program designed to support a sea-change in how the company's employees viewed data, personnel evaluation and development, and collaboration.

So what can a school like JIS learn from Home Depot's experience? After all, education and home improvement aren't exactly bosom-buddy topics. It all depends on how you evaluate JIS' current culture....

But the problem of culture is really difficult to discuss honestly, especially in a place like a school. It's like the elephant in the room....we all know it's there, but no one wants to say anything. If you don't believe me, check out Roland S. Barth's article in last month's issue of Educational Leadership (a publication of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, aka ASCD).

In "Improving Relationships Within the Schoolhouse," Barth, a former teacher and principal and founding director of the Principals' Center at Harvard University, talks about the very delicate, sometimes secretive climate that exists in schools:

"Schools are full of what I call nondiscussables—important matters that, as a profession, we seldom openly discuss. These include the leadership of the principal, issues of race, the underperforming teacher, our personal visions for a good school, and, of course, the nature of the relationships among the adults within the school. Actually, we do talk about the nondiscussables—but only in the parking lot, during the car pool, and at the dinner table."

The thing about the "nondiscussables," according to Barth, is that they -- particularly the ones dealing with the adult human component of the school (think teachers, administrators, and parents) -- form the foundation for how well, or poorly, a school works. "In short," he says, "the relationships among the educators in a school define all relationships within that school's culture. Teachers and administrators demonstrate all too well a capacity to either enrich or diminish one another's lives and thereby enrich or diminish their schools."

Barth explains the four types of relationships that typically reside in a school:
  • "Parallel Play" relationships (imagine two toddlers playing in the same room...they're playing, but not with each other);
  • Adversarial relationships (obviously bad);
  • Congenial relationships (obviously good); and
  • Collegial relationships (the gold standard of relationships, where people share information, ideas, constructive advice, and support).
The trick for a school is to actively, thoughtfully and purposefully nurture collegial relationships. How to do it? Create a culture of congeniality and collegiality.

While Barth's thinking zeroes in primarily on administrators and teachers, I'd push his ideas farther: changing a school's organizational culture should also involve the school board (or council, in JIS' case) and parents. It's this quadumvirate of adults who together have the capability of creating real, lasting change.

And the winners in all this changing and evolving? JIS students, who will benefit from improved teaching practices, a wiser administration, and parents who are active in and supportive of the school.

So for tomorrow: How can JIS take the next steps toward organizational culture change?

Monday, April 17, 2006

Building Core Knowledge into the Curriculum

Want to read a great article about the importance of a content-rich curriculum that includes a core of knowledge that's critical for students to understand and remember?

In an age where the education pendulum has swung over to the "teach students to think critically" side -- as opposed to the "teach students important subject matter/content" side (often referred to with disdain as rote memorization), E.D. Hirsh, Jr., details "The Case for Bringing Content into the Language Arts Block and for a Knowledge-Rich Curriculum Core for all Children." The article appears in the latest issue of the American Educator, a quarterly online publication of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

Hirsh's article has bucket-loads of relevance, particularly in an international community. Just mull over his lead example:

Consider the following sentence, which is one that most literate Americans can understand, but most literate British people cannot, even when they have a wide vocabulary and know the conventions of the standard language:

Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run.

Typically, a literate British person would know all the words in the sentence yet wouldn’t comprehend it. (In fairness, most Americans would be equally baffled by a sentence about the sport of cricket.) To understand this sentence about Jones and his sacrifice, you need a wealth of relevant background knowledge that goes beyond vocabulary and syntax—relevant knowledge that is far broader than the words of the sentence.
Good food for thought.

Changing Organizational Culture

Educators usually bristle when someone equates a school to a business. You've probably heard the analogy before: start with raw materials (students), add resources (teachers, curriculum, textbooks), and end up with finished "products," ready to proceed to university or the working world. It's a pretty primative way of looking at things -- after all, raise your hand if you think of your child as raw material!

No hands? That must be because we all understand that education is far more complicated than selling, say, building materials. But does that mean that schools can't learn anything from the business world? Not at all....

Take the April issue of the Harvard Business Review, for example. Ram Charan gives an excellent account of how US-retailer Home Depot underwent a full-blown corporate culture change in roughly two years. Home Depot (revenues of around $80 billion in 2005) provides an interesting example of not why to change, but how to change -- and that makes it relevant for schools to consider.

Now if you're saying, "JIS doesn't need a culture change," read no further. The rest of this posting will only make you mad, and you don't need that frustration. But if you've found yourself wondering whether JIS' current culture is hindering it from reaching its full potential as an amazing learning community for your children....read on.

Organizations can have many different types of culture, from "command and control" to "entrepreneurial" to the blood-thirsty "every man for himself." Each has benefits and drawbacks (although I'm hard-pressed to recall the benefits of the cut-throat culture at my first job in public relations! I still have scars.). And organizational culture can be experienced differently depending on where you are in the organization. In other words, the top-dog can see the culture much differently than someone lower in the organization's food chain. Culture is about setting organizational goals and then creating the best climate to reach those goals.

Once an organization's leaders have set their sites on revamping its culture, Home Depot's CEO Robert Nardelli offers up several tools to make the process happen:
  • Data templates (information-gathering tools that consolidate data on issues the organization deems critical) to "give employees a deeper understanding of business performance, and foster collaboration by putting people on the same page when making decisions."
  • "Disciplined talent reviews, conducted frequently,...which emphasize the need for candor and fairness in dealing with employee performance."
  • Employee task forces, "staffed by individuals from all levels of the [organization], to elicit unfiltered input from the people closest to a problem and gain their support for the changes the solution requires."
  • "An array of leadership development programs,...which raise the bar for performance and ensure continuity of the culture."
These tools are just as relevant to schools as they are to multi-million-dollar companies, because they get at the heart of building a climate of trust, mutually shared goals, and collaboration.

The great thing about addressing organizational culture is that it's a two-for-one deal. You get an improved culture, but you also get a better end product. For Home Depot, these changes meant "that people were interacting with one another and making critical decisions in significantly different ways....With these cultural changes embedded in the organization, improved business results were sure to follow." For JIS, we're talking about ending up with a school that serves all its students and families with the best possible education product imaginable.

As Thomas A. Steward, editor of the HBR points out,
For change to be deep and lasting, the interactions between people -- at all levels -- need to focus on the right outcomes and consistently produce the right conversations and decisions. Neither leadership, nor tools, nor incentives are sufficient to get you there. You must find a way to manage culture directly.
Powerful stuff. But where to go from here? More on that tomorrow.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The 10-pound dilemma

If you've ever been on a diet, you know that the last 10 pounds are the hardest to lose. You've worked hard to lose the first 20 (okay, 30) pounds. You're starting to look pretty good. But then you hit a plateau, and that's it -- the pounds stop falling off. Losing that last 10 pounds is exponentially harder than it was to drop the first 10, and it would be so much easier to just accept good instead of pushing for great.

Schools face the same dilemma. They come to a point where they're good. Maybe even really good. But the problem with "good" is that it's hard to push onward to "great." Doing most things pretty well keeps many people pretty happy. And let's face it -- change is hard.

Several people have asked me if I write on this blog because I think the school is bad. Nothing could be further from the truth! Robert and I hitched our proverbial wagon to the horse that is Indonesia precisely because we think that JIS is good.

But is being good good enough? Is it negative or pessimistic to want something better? I don't think so -- in fact, I'd argue that pushing for improvement is the ultimate statement of hope and belief in an institution. After all, we have other options. But none of those options, in my opinion, are as good for our family as sticking with JIS and helping it grow from Good to Great.

So that's what this blog is about. Does questioning the current way that things are done mean that they're done poorly? No -- but it does imply a willingness to look honestly at the cold, hard facts and try to envision something better. Is school improvement an easy process? No -- but the end results can be amazing.
  • Imagine a JIS so great that employees beg their companies for a posting in Indonesia so that their kids can attend.
  • Imagine standards and a curriculum so fantastic that teachers are rushing the JIS recruiting tables at the hiring fairs just to have a chance to teach here, despite the challenges and travails of living in Indonesia.
  • Imagine a professional development program so cutting edge that JIS has to use a shoehorn to get a little teacher turnover.
These are the kinds of things we should be dreaming about -- and then doing the hard work necessary to make them reality. Those are JIS' last 10 pounds.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Assessing for learning

The funny bloggers over at Kitchen Table Math put us at JIS Topics on to this article from the Phi Delta Kappan (the journal of Phi Delta Kappa, an international association for professional educators) about one of the hotest topics in education today: formative assessment.

In a nutshell, formative assessment (also called assessment for learning in the UK) is about giving students regular feedback on their work. To be effective, this feedback has to be frequent, specific, and constructive. In other words, not just a bunch of red ink on the page without any advice on how the work could be improved....

This differs from the type of assessments most of us old fogies are familiar with, like unit tests, final exams, and most standardized tests. (Are you breaking into a cold sweat now just thinking about those blasted things?). These types of assessments tell teachers where students stand in comparison with other students; they gage the "sum of a student's cummulative knowledge." Sometimes that's really important.

But students don't learn anything from summative assessments. (Think about it: did you ever go back and re-read your final exam essay to figure out where you could have done better? How about those fill-in-the-bubble tests?) These summative assessments (in edu-speak) are ends unto themselves. But they're not learning tools.

If your curiosity is peaked, check out the Phi Delta Kappan article. It's long and wonky (get out your eye-toothpicks), but it's also loaded with compelling evidence that formative assessment "is an essential component of classroom work and that its development can raise standards of achievement," according to Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, the paper's authors. They go on to say that "they know of no other way of raising standards for which such a strong prima facie* case can be made." Wow, now that's saying something.

* "Evidence good and sufficient on its face." And no, I didn't know that -- I had to look it up! But it sounds impressive, doesn't it? To help me remember, I'm going to use it in a sentence when Robert gets home from work: "This huge pile of paperwork is prima facie evidence that I tried to finish our income tax return but did not succeed." Wish me luck!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Another gentle reminder: Share your ideas!

Today nine JIS parents attended the council's first of six open forums on the perception audits that took place last year. It was an underwhelming turnout, but maybe with the long weekend, the short notice, and the promise of more forums to come, the stars just weren't aligned for a bigger crowd.

The obvious question: what might that low turnout signal? Based on only one forum, it's definitely too soon to draw any conclusions. But as parents, we should be worried that if the low turnouts continue, council may conclude the worst: that parents just can't be bothered.

(I don't for a minute believe that's true. I'd guess it's more likely that parents are just not used to being asked for their opinions in a meaningful way. Or it could be that parents have volunteered their views in the past, but have been ignored so many times that they've thrown up their hands in despair and checked out of the discussion. But that's a whole 'nother issue.)

Okay, so if you're reading this thinking, "hey, wait a minute. I'm going to a forum," then I have two things to say to you:
  • THANK YOU!
  • BE PREPARED!
The second bullet requires some explanation. Forum participants should be ready to articulate their views about the issues outlined in the executive summary. Here's why: the forums begin with an overview of council and governance, then a brief explanation of the research results. Following that explanation, you'll be asked to write down your thoughts on the identified issues on post-it notes. Unless you're great at thinking on the fly, this can be daunting.

The post-it-note-concept is actually a cool way for council to collect input. It allows council to capture our thinking on paper without risking misinterpretation, and it gives even the most quiet, shy group members an avenue to share ideas. But the key is that attendees are prepared when they arrive at the meeting, because there's not much time for reflection.

So what can you do? Read the research report in advance (available through council's site on the JIS ParentNet) -- and yes, with a pen in your hand! While you're reading, underline points you find most interesting or provocative. Put a question mark next to parts you don't understand or think need clarification. Put a star beside the ideas you agree with. And make notes in the margins when things pop into your head. (Teacher tip: this is called annotating the text, and its a great way to read actively!)

Lastly, ask yourself, "what doesn't the report talk about that's important to me as a parent of a JIS student?" Write those things down!

Then when you attend a forum, you'll be ready to quickly write down your ideas on post-its. I'm hoping that future forums will allow time for some dialogue and interaction. After all, it's the discussion that makes us smarter, because it forces us to explain our own thinking and consider ideas that we might not have thought about -- or even disagree with. Plus, dialogue is collaborative, which is always a good thing!

Monday, April 10, 2006

Reminder: Open Forums start this week!

Just a quick reminder that the school council's series of open forums to discuss the results of the focus group research begin tomorrow. Here are the details:
  • April 11 (Tuesday) -- 7:30 a.m. @ the Pattimura theater
  • April 12 (Wednesday) -- 6:30 p.m. @ the Middle School library (Cilandak campus)
  • April 13 (Thursday) -- 7:30 a.m. @ the Pondok Indah Elementary campus (Flamboyan 24)
  • April 17 (Monday) -- 4:00 p.m. @ the Pattimura theater
  • April 18 (Tuesday) -- 6:00 p.m. @ the Marriott Hotel
  • April 20 (Thursday) -- 3:00 p.m. @ the High School's I-Module, I-13 (Cilandak campus)
The feedback from these forums will help guide council as they consider changes to the educational policies at JIS that affect every child! School improvement is hard work, but it's worth the effort, so please attend and share your ideas. Have a look back at "Your chance to be heard at JIS" for a reminder on why your views matter.

Then check out today's New York Times for an interesting story about the New York School District's attempt to "remake the schools" that serve 1.1 million students. They're throwing a ton of money and political weight at the goal, but I think they're missing the thing that will make all the difference: genuine involvement in the process from parents and teachers. JIS doesn't seem to be making the same mistake. So let's take advantage of this first opportunity!

Financial Literacy for Kids

“They like to spend it, but young people don't know much about how money works. On average, high school seniors answered correctly only 52.4 percent of questions about personal finance and economics, according to a nationwide survey released Wednesday.” Associated Press, 5/4/2006

Conducted by the Jump $tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy and released at a press conference opened by Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, the survey indicates that financial literacy rates among American high school students are unacceptably low.

A non-profit organization, Jump $tart is at the forefront of a movement to address the problem, in part by introducing financial skills into the public school curriculum K-12. Supported by the Federal Reserve, the US Treasury Department, academicians, and the financial services and accounting industries, the movement responds to a variety of worrying trends and events, including:

- Skyrocketing personal and national debt levels;

- Fraying of safety nets such as pension funds and Social Security and their replacement by the fiscal imperative of personal financial self-sufficiency; and

- Ongoing recovery of the US stock market after the bursting of what was apparently a 4 trillion dollar bubble in shareholder value.

Though weaknesses in corporate governance and conflicts of interest in the accounting and financial services industries were important factors in the 90’s bubble, low financial literacy rates on the part of the investing public also contributed. (The sins of the father are visited on the son?)

In addition to the Jump $tart website, have a look at Independent Means Inc. Its CEO is Joline Godfrey, author of Raising Financially Fit Kids. There is a link to excerpts from her book, and I was struck by these guiding principles:

- Financial competence is at the heart of true independence and self-reliance.

- Financial education is economic self defense. An ability to make sound decisions throughout life requires basic skills and financial wisdom acquired through practice and experience.

- Financial education is about character and values, not just the money. Mindful self-management of desires and values is essential to the stewardship of social, family, and capital assets.

- Financial fluency begins in childhood and is a lifelong process, acquired through the iterative learning of the Ten Basic Money Skills.

This background explains how I arrived at the second item in my wish list of 4 things I'd like my kids to be able to do on finishing school. By the way, pardon the ethnocentric nature of the evidence presented above. Maybe others will step forward with experiences from elsewhere in the world.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Cramming for Feedback Sessions

Thanks for the welcome, Cheryl. It's a pleasure to participate more actively in a discussion about education with the JIS community. As suggested in my profile, I suspect an interest in education is genetically encoded. Let's see if I have any talent for interesting others.

I agree with Cheryl that curriculum is a bedrock issue in education that deserves our time and attention. I suspect she was deftly working backward to it in an earlier posting, when she invited us to make a wish list of just 4 things we would like our kids to be able to do on leaving school.

The creation of such a wish list is a focused but user-friendly entry point to defining educational goals and standards, a topic that directly addresses the 2nd of the following 3 “ends” issues Council now focuses on under the Carver model of governance.

1) Whom do we serve?

2) What do we want to produce for those served?

3) And at what relative cost?

In turn, educational goals and standards should be the starting point for developing and delivering curriculum – guiding what is taught year-to-year and even day-to-day. Though it is not appropriate for Council to develop curriculum, it can and should be involved in

a) Setting educational goals and standards; and

b) Exercising oversight of the school administration or “Executive” to ensure that the curriculum serves achievement of goals and standards.

I applaud Council for demonstrating its commitment to addressing ends issues in active consultation with parents, staff, students, sponsoring organizations, and alumni – first, by sponsoring the Ownership Perception Audit and second, by inviting these moral owners to offer feedback on the findings.

At the risk of a repetitive blog, I invite all parents to reconsider Cheryl's question. The exercise could not be more timely. Think of it as “homework” for the feedback sessions you will hopefully be attending over the next two weeks. And though it may seem immodest, I have recapped my wish list below the dotted line in the hope that it will facilitate further thought and discussion.

Are we as confused about core values and as “at odds over educational goals" as the Council’s summary of the Ownership Perception Audit findings suggests (see bottom of page 2)? Post your own wish list to the blog, and we may begin to find out. Let the enrichment process begin!

--------------------------------

1. Communication

The ability to read and think analytically and to express ideas clearly and confidently in writing and public speaking to a standard I lack the expertise to define.

2. Financial Literacy

The ability to use basic math skills and operations to master the 10 basic money skills identified in Joline Godfrey’s Raising Financially Fit Kids.

3. Conflict Resolution

The ability to resolve a) inner and b) interpersonal conflicts through

a. self-awareness including a written credo of one’s personal strengths, needs, values, and spiritual beliefs; and mastery of stress management, including understanding of the mind-body connection, regular use of relaxation techniques, and achievement of minimum standards of physical fitness.

b. mastery of active listening, effective assertion statements, and the “collaborative” or “win/win” model of conflict management.

4. Lifelong learning

The ability to continue learning throughout life through:

a. mastery of the process of secondary research;

b. understanding of the scientific method;

c. understanding of primary research, including both qualitative and quantitative methods; and

d. mastery of Internet Explorer and a variety of other computer applications.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

JIS Topics welcomes newest blogger!

Things are a-changin' at JIS Topics. Today we add Catherine Quoyeser to the roster. Hooray!

A member of the JIS community for nearly two years, Catherine brings bucket-loads of insights and experience to the discussion. I know she's too modest to want me to wax poetic on how fantastic she is, but suffice it to say that she's so smart it makes my brain hurt just to think about it. Hopefully she'll let you know a little about her work and education on her profile (I'll give you a preview: "former professor at Northwestern University" -- cool!).

So welcome, Catherine!

And if anyone else out there yearns to be heard (The Sitemeter indicates that someone from Sweden's prison system checked in by accident -- if that's not reach, I don't know what is!), please let me know. You're invited to join the JIS Topics team!

JIS blogging: one month later

Tomorrow will be the one-month anniversary of JIS Topics! That's several times longer than Britney Spear's first marriage lasted! Woo-hoo!

With 21 posts, one on-line poll, and a few comments under its belt, JIS Topics feels the need to expand its reach and usability. So today, you'll find something new on the right-hand side of this page (right under my profile and the "links" box").

It's the JIS Topics Suggestion Box!

Technically, it's called a tagboard, which is geek-speak for an online bulletin board that stays on a blog's home page. Blog readers don't have to comment on a specific post. Instead, they can just type an idea or thought into the "messages" box.

If you want to talk about a certain topic, or if you have an idea you'd like to share, follow these steps:
  • Type your note in the "messages/smilies" box. (There's a 200-character limit, but don't worry -- the friendly Suggestion Box will tell you if you've bloviated.)
  • Then choose a moniker for the "name" box. You can use your real name or make something up! ("Edu-stud" has been taken by my husband, just in case you were thinking about that one.)
  • Enter your email address in the "URL or Email" box. (I use my real one, but if you feel uncomfortable doing that, you can create a free "junk mail" address with an email provider such as Yahoo or MSN/Hotmail. Just check it once in a while to see if anyone's sent you a note.....)
  • Click "TAG" -- that's it.
Try it out. Hopefully it will make having a dialogue on JIS and the educational issues it faces easier and more fun.

Well, gotta go decontaminate several kids after a wet, messy, fantastic day at the JIS Fun Fair. Kudos to the PTA and all the parents, JIS staff, and sponsoring organizations who made this great day possible! It was absolutely super -- and exhausting!

Friday, April 07, 2006

Your chance to be heard at JIS

Have you had a chance to look through your JIS school bulletin yet? They're always very interesting, but this week's contained a gem -- the notice for JIS school council's series of open forums to discuss last year's perception audits done by Indo Pacific Reputation Management Consultants.

As a community, we should all be jumping for joy. These forums are nearly three years in the making, since 2003, when the council voted to move to the Carver model of governance. This model requires a governing board like the JIS council to link with its "moral owners" -- parents, staff, students sponsoring organizations and alumni -- to help it understand those owners' beliefs, understandings, values and dreams. These forums are a big deal.

If you haven't had a chance, you should download council's summary of the perception audits (either from an email you should have received from the school, or from the JIS ParentNet). This document outlines the results of the focus group research (17 groups made up of parents, JIS staff, and students) and 13 individual interviews with sponsoring organizations. Then have a good read, preferably with a pen in your hand so that you can jot down your thoughts and ideas while you read. (Being an English teacher, I have to read with a pen in hand -- it's hardwired into my DNA. But really, it's a good way to read actively!)

Then, make time to attend one of the six open forums that begin next Tuesday, April 11. Council has scheduled meetings in various locations and at different times to make sure that everyone in the JIS community has a chance to attend. The turnout at these meeting is important for several reasons:
  • A high turnout will demonstrate that moral owners value their ability to play a role in the process of "revisioning" JIS and the ends policies that will drive the school's future direction. (A low turnout will show that....ugh, I don't even want to consider that option!)
  • Big meetings mean more voices -- and while they're often messier than a small gathering, lots of people can generate lots of ideas. I'm a huge believer in The Wisdom of Crowds. The many really are smarter than the few.
  • There's a lot to talk about, both in terms of what's in the research summary -- and what's not.
So tell your spouse, gather your friends, and make a date with the JIS school council to participate in the critical step in JIS' future. Your kids -- and the kids of 10 years from now -- will thank you for your time and effort!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Going SAT-optional: colleges rethink the big test

My family's a few years away from sending anyone to college, but this article from USA Today might be interesting to parents and students at JIS who are closer to making those big decisions: "More universities are going SAT-optional," by Laura Bruno.

Bruno reports that currently "24 of the top 100 liberal arts colleges, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report, are SAT- and ACT-optional." That's interesting news -- especially if your child is a poor test-taker! And in light of the recent scoring lapses that have rocked the College Board (which owns and administers the SAT exam), it seems more schools may be taking a closer look at the value of these high-stakes standardized tests.

Bringing curriculum to the forefront

You see the funniest things driving around Jakarta.... As my friend Pat and I passed Kemchicks in Kemang a while ago, Pat spotted a man on the back of a motorcycle wearing a World War II-era gas mask. How bizzare! I could almost hear the man saying, "It's too bloody hot to wear a helmet -- so to hell with the risk of traumatic brain injury! But I'll be damned if I'm going to breathe this Jakarta smog!"

I tried to capture him with my cell-phone camera, but I was laughing too hard (and hanging out of a car with a cell phone in Jakarta is probably just as crazy as riding a motorcycle with a gas mask but no helmet!). While I missed the photo op, the visual image will stay seared in my brain forever. (To make up for my failure to document this event, I invite you to check out this website, which has photos of overloaded vehicles that put Jakarta's hilarious examples to shame.)

But more than just a laugh, gas-mask guy is a metaphor for a common human condition: often we focus on the smaller issues while ignoring the bigger ones that are the heart of the matter.

Schools aren't immune to this problem. After all, it's easy to get sucked in to the day-to-day issues of running an educational institution -- the discipline, the finances, the scheduling, the substitutes..... Schools have to confront an almost endless array of problems, issues, and situations every day.

That's not to say that those issues are unimportant or inconsequential! After all, a school would fall apart without discipline, strong finances, a thoughtful schedule or qualified substitutes. But once in a while it's important that schools step back and ask themselves, "what's our main issue, and how are well are we handling it?"

I'd argue that curriculum (or whatever you choose to call the standards/outcomes a school expects of its students and the plan it puts in place to get students from point A to the final hoped-for outcomes) is the main "business" of the school, and therefore should merit serious and ongoing attention.

Yesterday I mentioned the problems parents face when trying to make sense of -- or evaluate -- the strength of a school's curriculum. If someone out there feels he's/she's got a good handle on the curriculum situation at JIS, please help me understand, because I'm still trying to figure it out.

I don't think I'm alone in this -- just look at the number of U.S. states that have established parent organizations dedicated to helping parents navigate through curricular issues.

And I don't think it's just parents struggling with the curriculum issue. Schools, themselves, find developing curriculum -- and the standards that should drive it -- can be hugely complicated, loaded with emotion and politics, and just plain difficult to wrap your arms around. (Just have a look at the blog for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) and it conference in Chicago, which just ended on Monday.)

There's no shame in admitting it. No school has figured out the perfect curriculum -- and you'd be sad if your school announced that it had! After all, educators are researching and learning new things all the time. In an ideal world, debate on curriculum hopefully makes educators -- and by proxy, students -- smarter.

So the questions we should be asking are:
  • How does JIS currently set educational standards/goals/target outcomes?
  • How does JIS currently develop curriculum? What’s the process?
  • How does JIS currently create smooth and appropriate articulation across grades in each subject area? (i.e. making sure that standards/curriculum/courses flow from one grade to the next from prep to 12th) --- gets at the concept of mapping**
  • How does JIS currently ensure that curriculum is applied consistently across classes in each grade?
  • Is JIS handling curriculum in the best way possible?
Asking these questions doesn't imply criticism. It's just trying to figure things out in the hopes of a greater understanding. Moving from good to great is hard work.

** Mapping is the concept of looking at how a school -- and individual teachers -- currently deliver curriculum across all grades in that school, and then looking for gaps or inconsistencies.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Thinking about curriculum

I'm sitting with my son, Erik, who's just informed me that the topic of today's blog should be "what should your youngest kid be doing in P.E.?" Apparently, the 4th grade today practiced for the "pacer run" (for the uninitiated, a test of your child's endurance involving running back and forth in the gym), and a relay race. Erik wants to play dodgeball -- plain and simple. Aye, carumba. Well, at least Erik's understanding the value of the internet and public opinion. Kinda scary.

But honestly, I couldn't care less about P.E. at the moment (no offense meant to P.E. teachers!) because my mind's on another topic. I'm thinking about curriculum. The reason? The Parent Survey Report JIS parents received just before spring break.

Now this was a while ago, so you may be scratching your head. But to remind you, here's the question that dealt with curriculum (at least at the elementary level): "Please rate how well [insert your campus] is doing in terms of helping your child learn in each of the subjects listed below." The survey went on to list curricular areas (and in some subjects, sub-categories), such as language arts, math, social studies, science, music. P.E., art, etc.

As I read this question, I felt backed into a corner as a parent. To give an answer -- from excellent to poor -- we'd have to have something to go by. Homework, tests, a portfolio....something. We'd also have to know to what we were comparing the JIS experience. For example, we'd have to know what our home country or previous international-school curriculum looked like, and how it was delivered in the classroom. That's the only way we'd know "how well" JIS is doing.

On the other hand, we could have replied "Don't Know" to the survey question. But that makes me feel stupid. What parent, after all, doesn't know how well their school is doing in teaching their children? To admit that we don't know is to reveal that we're not aware of what's happening in school. Who wants to do that?

(Honestly, we most often went the "don't know" route, because it seemed bogus to answer any other way. We don't see evidence of how well our kids are learning speaking skills, for example, or social studies. We hope for the best, but even after report cards and parent-teacher conferences, we're left to figure out how well JIS is doing compared to what we might reasonably expect at our home-country school. That's hard, and we're pretty clueless in most subjects!)

For the most part, the PIE survey results on these curriculum questions hovered around 4 out of 5 -- which equates to "agree" on the scale given. I guess that means that, on the average, parents agree that JIS is doing well in teaching their kids the various subjects. That's not bad at all. But maybe the results would have been different (better or worse -- I don't know) if parents hadn't been backed into the corner by the survey question.

Here's what parents need to answer questions about the strength of a particular school's curriculum:
  • They need to see their children's school work (homework, graded exams and written work, portfolios, for example)
  • They need to know what the current school's curriculum is, on paper**
  • They need to understand the curriculum at their home-country school or previous/future international school.
By now, you're probably shaking your head, wondering who's got time -- or expertise, if we're being honest -- for all that? Frankly, I wouldn't know a good math curriculum if it hit me over the head. And art curriculum? Yikes....no idea. The depths of my lame-ness knows no bounds on most subjects.

So how do great parents -- and a great school, for that matter -- rate "how well the school is doing in terms of helping your child learn" in the various subjects? That is the single most important question that anyone will ever ask in education.

The door is open for your thinking. And this blog will keep thinking about it for tomorrow.....

** Theoretically, you can find the current JIS curriculum binder in your campus' library. Hopefully, JIS will put its curriculum on the JIS ParentNet soon. It would be really helpful, and probably more complete/up-to-date than the current binder system. But even then, it's important to remember that what's on paper isn't necessarily what children are experiencing in the classroom. But that's the subject of another posting....or 100.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Educational Blogging

To my absolute surprise, yesterday's poll question came out pretty well -- at least layout-wise. Also to my surprise, people still ask me if they can comment or answer the poll question anonymously. YES, YOU CAN! Honestly. There's no way I (or anyone else) can figure out who's looking at or commenting on this site. So join in the fun!

On a related note, I've added a "site counter" at the bottom of the home page that let's me see how many people have looked at the blog (last time I checked, about 70, which may include those who look more than once). It also tells me how long the average visit is (about 3 1/2 minutes), and how many pages the average visitor looks at (about 3). Interestingly, it also tells me -- in broad, geographic terms only! -- where people are sitting when they look at the JIS Topics blog. Today someone in New South Wales, Australia, spent some time putsing around the site -- yikes, must be very bored!

So anyway, hopefully you feel that you can participate in this discussion without being outed. Blogs really work best when discussion happens, ideas are challenged, and thoughts are pushed farther. Socrates based his whole existence on this idea: you've got to ask questions if you want to discover the answers.....

Lastly, if you have a chance, have a look at some of the other educational blogs in cyberspace. A few good ones (all admittedly with a US focus -- so please send others from outside the States that we can add to this list):
  • Eduwonk.com
  • The EdWahoo
  • The Education Gadfly (written by the Fordham Foundation's Chester Finn, a controversial-but-incredibly-smart education reformer)
  • Blog of Proximal Development (run by a Canadian Ph.D. candidate who's studying ways educators can use blogs -- very well written!)
  • Blog Board (Education Week's "look at what's new and noteworthy in educator blogs")
  • Kitchen Table Math (run by two moms/mathematicians, this site is great for parents and educators trying to make sense of math, math curriculum, and other mind-boggling topics)
Still not convinced that this whole blogging thing isn't just another new-fangled fad, like pet rocks or mood rings? Read this article in today's Washington Post. Apparently it's not just for geeks anymore.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Let's try something new!

Hello friends!

Hope everyone had a great break and has returned to life-as-usual with renewed vim and vigor. Strange as this may sound, I actually missed not having internet access. Yikes, I've become a blog addict!

But in the interest of shaking things up a little (and trying to learn something new), I'd like to introduce the first JIS Topics POLL. This has no scientific value whatsoever, but hopefully it will be interesting. So here goes nothing.... (and if this fails monumentally, I apologize in advance).

Last week, this blog discussed the academic pressure facing students today. My assumption was that pressure -- and the cheating that pressure can spawn -- probably wasn't a big problem at JIS. Well, I quickly felt the folly of my hubris..... Maybe students do feel crushing pressure, but I'm just not plugged into the student psyche. Heaven knows, it wouldn't be the first time -- just ask my daughter! So, here's the poll:

How much academic pressure does your oldest child feel at JIS?
Pressure? What pressure?
Just the right amount of pressure to keep him/her motivated.
Lots of pressure, but it's good for him/her.
Where's the release valve? He's/she's gonna blow!
Yoga classes and a zen rock garden at JIS wouldn't hurt....
I honestly have no idea.
Free polls from Pollhost.com

If this works, I'll be really surprised. But also pleased. In the meantime, I'd better get back to reading my HTML tutorial!