Saturday, July 29, 2006

A “Need to Know” Situation in Education

In the power to know we’re making a difference in education we talked about the emerging education imperative—the metaphorical “learn or die” scenario. There is little doubt that this imperative is driving expanded explorations into how we educate. Which is why when you look worldwide, there is a dizzying array of regulatory frameworks emerging at all levels of education, ranging from the U.S. Department of Education’s No Child Left Behind Act to the Higher Learning Commission’s Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP) to the Bologna Process in Europe to test regimes in Qatar.

In addition external sources are bringing publicly available data to parents, community leaders, and legislators to start conversations. The Education Trust is one of the leading drivers of these dialogues. Their goal is to highlight success and start difficult explorations of weaknesses in educational systems. Check out their College Results site to do some of your own examinations of college effectiveness. It is a completely different way of looking at college quality than US News and World Report rankings. In addition, the Gates Foundation posts a US report card of state-by-state school system performance as part of their work in igniting change in education through rigor, relevance, and relationships.

Other initiatives are also bringing insight to education from more direct sources—student surveys. The National Survey of Student Engagement, the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, and the newly created High School Survey of Student Engagement, all use the technique of leveraging the reams of research reports about what works in teaching and learning and then reaching out directly to students. The leaders of these efforts have created surveys that capture data from students about whether they are engaged in teaching and learning activities that research shows will lead them toward success in education. Moreover, they encourage the hundreds of institutions that participate to benchmark themselves against like institutions to compare their effectiveness and drive conversations about what level of engagement is “good enough.”

In the United States, broader benchmarking activities are being driven by associations and grant initiatives. For example, The Western States Benchmarking Consortium members are searching for “more meaningful accountability.” Leading school districts in this group are driving student performance analysis, financial intelligence, strategic performance management, and human capital intelligence projects. The Achieving the Dream (ATD) project, funded by the Lumina Foundation, is challenging community colleges to use systematic data collection to learn more about access and success in two-year institutions. Moreover, ATD and other programs, like the College and Career Transitions Initiative are driving institutions to look at data sets that explore the flow of students between levels of education. And the Educause Center for Applied Research is striving to use research and analysis to help higher education leaders make better decisions.

While they may not have achieved the sophistication of the predictive analytics used by or the interactivity of gaming systems, it’s clear that education insight initiatives on the local, state, national, and international level are on the rise. I just hope they fulfill the promise of helping us learn what’s working, what’s not, and what holds the potential to drive transformational change in the way we teach and reach students. Because given our modern education imperative, this is truly a “need to know” situation.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Coffee Talk with Dad: A Homecoming

The end of this month will mark the one-year anniversary of our father’s passing. John Michael Milliron was a gentle, kind, and caring man whose joy in life came from watching the comings and goings of his nine children and 11 grandchildren.

He was diagnosed with terminal small-cell lung cancer in February of 2004 and given 3-6 months to live. We were devastated. He was devastated. For the first time since he was 13, he had to quit work and stay home. Driving him to pick up his things from work was crushing. He was 'going to work' for the last time; and for a man who came of age in the fifties—an organization man—this was tough stuff. You could see it in his eyes.

But serendipity soon came. He used this time to dive deep into our worlds, to spend hours and hours talking with us over morning coffee, finally reminiscing about his past, and encouraging us about our roads ahead. The older children took turns going to the house to spend time with him in the mornings before work. It was like he was running his own little Starbucks. I have the sneaking suspicion that he was having so much fun connecting with his kids and grandkids, he fought harder through the chemo, weight loss, and nausea to stay in our lives. He was with us almost three-times longer than we expected. In fact, he was placed on Hospice in October of 2004, and the doctors told us we were probably six weeks away, at most. After more than six months, they realized this might be a longer haul. Although it was a painful time, it was a special time. A time we wouldn’t trade for the world.

I had taken a new job in North Carolina in the fall of 2004. Julia, my wife, was completely supportive of me flying back to Arizona on a regular basis to stay with family, help with Dad, and get my morning conversations in. I could write forever about these experiences, but today, as we approach the one-year anniversary of his passing, I’ll share a lesson that came my way. I was reviewing my journal from that time and found a piece I had written called The Homecoming. I witnessed this scene after having to cut one of my Dad trips short and rush to the airport to get back to NC for work meetings.

A Homecoming

I’m sitting at the airport, which is no surprise, eating a quick lunch before I pass through security and get on to the gates to board my plane. As I’m people watching to pass the time, I notice that a plane with soldiers must have landed—kids returning home from Iraq, from what I can tell. They’re streaming by with bags in tow, all shapes and sizes, all in a hurry. The first thing that strikes me is how
young these guys are. They barely look old enough to drive, much less lead a charge in Iraq.

The next thing that catches my eye is a family patiently waiting just beyond security. There’s a nervous and excited mother, wringing her hands, nervously checking her husband’s watch, and trying to keep the two kids close by. There is what looks like a 10-year-old little girl and maybe 4-year-old brown-haired boy. The latter is bouncing off the walls; the former has yet to move a muscle. She’s just staring into the group of soldiers emerging from the terminal. The father is an average-sized man, with a tension about him; but clearly he’s the rock. His worn jeans, what looks like a work shirt of some kind, and tattered black shoes tell you he’s not used to airports, which is also clear by the glances he shoots at business travelers buzzing by as they talk on their cell phones. The family is standing together about 100 feet back from security, eyeing each soldier, as if wondering if they can still recognize their child. Finally, their son emerges from beyond the check point.

First the four-year-old charges the child soldier and tackles him waste high. The short-haired, short-standing boy guards himself against the charge and picks up his little brother. The sister and mother are next, shrieking as they rush to his side, kiss him, hug him, and maul him with joy. The father hasn’t moved. He’s just standing and watching as if in disbelief. After a little of the excitement settles, they all turn to the father. There is a long pause, and then the son puts down his duffle, guides his little brother to the ground, and slowly walks to his Dad. He boldly puts out his hand, but in what is clearly not a natural motion, the father opens his arms. The boy, taken aback, falls into his father’s hug. The father guides his son’s head down into his shoulder with his left hand, and holds on with all his might with his right.

The mother, daughter, and brother are standing just staring at this scene—as are we. No one at close range can look away. Overwhelmed, crying, the father is holding on to someone he thought he had lost forever. And he won’t let go. The rest of the family gently moves closer and just put their hands on the two. And then they melt into the hug as well. He is home.


I took this all in and just melted in emotion for a bit. I wasn’t going to fight it. When I’m 70, I would never remember the meeting to which I was rushing. I would remember, however, my coffee talks with Dad. I went to the US Air counter, canceled my ticket, and got a cab. When I came into the house with bags in tow, my Dad looked puzzled . . . but pleased. “Flight was canceled,” I said. “Got any more coffee?” He just grinned and poured the Folgers.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Bubble Wrap

By now you may have already seen the online bubble wrap sheet. After popping a few bubbles myself, I starting thinking about the uses of bubble wrap. Most important of those uses is the wrapping of valuable articles so they don’t get broken during times of transition—particularly big moves.

Then I started thinking about the major education overhaul that we’re undertaking. It’s clear that the fundamental transition from our industrial factory model of education to one better suited for our knowledge, or creative, economy is underway. And much like big house moves, this is a time of massive transition. And during transitions, there is great stress. During transitions—if we get sloppy—valuable items break. During transitions, it’s good to use bubble wrap liberally.

What about our students? I really hope we’re not throwing them into the educational transition moving van without adequate protection. Are we holding them to new standards without the teaching, reaching, and leadership resources in our schools to help them make the grade? Are we tossing them about in a turbulent ride, the destination not quite in site, all the while focusing protection on past infrastructures, contracts, and models of education? What should we be doing to ensure that during this unique time of transition, our current students don’t just suffer the ride, but learn to thrive? How can we be certain these attempts to smooth the transition won’t become enabling crutches?

There may not be perfect answers here. However, we definitely should be asking the questions. Unfortunately, there is a false assumption floating around that students are already there. They are “NetGen” kids, already one step ahead. I’m not so sure. Yes, they are comfortable with new technology. But are they prepared for the new knowledge economy? Are they ready to learn for a lifetime? Organizations like the Partnership for 21st Century Skills are asking these kinds of questions and engaging local, state, and national conversations on the topic. Take a hard look at their good work to get an idea of the transitional challenges we’re about to undergo.

Of course we don’t need to cloister the kids. However, we should be particularly patient with a generation of learners that will live through this massive move. A little bit of bubble wrap with these valuables is probably a good idea.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

A Healthy Independence Day

Interdependence can be a good thing. It wraps partners into relationships that encourage them to at least look for compromise and win/win scenarios. But when it gets one sided, it can be a trap. Just think about our dependence on foreign oil. Our brothers, sisters, children, and parents fight and die in far away places that we would hardly consider intervening in were it not for oil or the resulting dysfunctions of the surrounding region. Because of our dependence, questionable governments and leaders are blessed with largess, and often live out Gandhi’s admonition that wealth without work is a blunder that can destroy the world.

Now, don’t get me wrong. In a deeply connected world, we must engage. We must be good partners. However, in every good partnership, marriage, or friendship, the players operate best from a place of strength. When one holds a substantial advantage over the other, or the pain of exit is greater than the ecstasy of entry into another more positive relationship, dangerous dynamics ensue. In personal relations, verbal abuse, physical battering, and exploitation can result. In global foreign relations, radical rhetoric, erratic economies, and military maelstroms are our reward.

As most of us clearly recognize, we are best served by having a healthy, educated, independent, personal base from which to operate in our worlds of work, home, and beyond. When we center ourselves and get on purpose, take care of our bodies, and expand our education, we are better parents, partners, friends, and neighbors. It’s no different with our country. When we take care of each other, educate our citizenry, and foster healthy, independent infrastructures, we can be better, more responsible players on the world stage.

It’s not about protectionism, isolationism, or xenophobia. It’s about being a good partner in an increasingly flat, connected, and interdependent world. Maybe it would help if once a year we champion a healthy independence day. July 4th sounds good!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

21st Century Catalytic Conversations

I had the great pleasure of participating in one of Florida State Senator Ken Pruitt’s 21st Century Summits last week. Senator Pruitt is the incoming president of the state senate in Florida and is a major champion of education. He holds these summits on different topics to bring diverse leaders together in what we would call "catalytic conversations" about key topics in the state. Much like our earlier entry about Erskine Bowles’ inaugural address, the conversation here was about K-20, lifelong learning, and the increasing ties to economic development. Learning and earning indeed. All sectors from across Florida were represented and did an outstanding job of outlining the challenges and opportunities of the road ahead. Just take a look at the agenda to get an idea of the dialogues they put together.

We were hosted by Indian River Community College (IRCC) and their president Dr. Ed Massey. IRCC is one of those special community colleges that fully embraces its role as an educational catalyst. In addition to the standard comprehensive community college programs, they run a magnet high school, a dynamic adult learning center, and are home to the newly minted Kight Center for Emerging Technologies. I joked that the Kight Center was the kind of education facility God would build if he had the money! It is home to cutting-edge biotechnology, engineering, e-learning programs and more.

The stunning Kight Center was a perfect venue for these catalytic conversations. Senator Pruitt and team did an outstanding job of pulling in diverse constituencies to really hit some hard topics head on. Instead of pitting sectors against each other—particularly surrounding a topic like career and technical education that can lead to uncomfortable elitism—he sent the powerful message that it’s all about how we work together to position the state to play a successful part on the global stage. With conversations like this going on, coupled with the solid educational leadership in the state, Florida is more likely than most to be ready for the road ahead.