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Making Sense of “Nonsense”

Once again I find unique “value” in the Answer Sheet — the Washington Post’s education blog shepherded by Valerie Strauss. But it’s not in its “answers” … but instead its the “questions” it forces me to raise.

As an example, its October 9 posting – “The bankrupt ‘school reform manifesto’ of Rhee, Klein, etc.” correctly (I believe) identified some of the apparent “nonsense” at the core of recent national attempts to focus public attention on the urgent need to “fix urban public schools” – in particular:

• the “How to fix our schools” Manifesto issued by 15 “urban” school system leaders who acknowledge being “responsible for educating nearly 2 1/2 million students in America,”

• the “Waiting for Superman” film,

• the “Superwoman” focus on the seemingly-appropriate and acceptable actions of one temporary leader — Michelle Rhee, and

• the federal “Race-to-the-Top” initiative.

But as I read Strauss’ posting about the “wrongness” seemingly-communicated by the Manifesto, Superman, and the Race-to-the-Top…  I found critical differences in our conclusions about what to do to make them “right” … and I began to wonder why?

My guess was that it had to do with the nature of the experiences that shaped what we each believed about what we currently see happening today in schools.

I know my own suspicions about the validity and usefulness of the Manifesto were raised when I saw who its authors were, and then, because of my beliefs about “the actual problem” they are fruitlessly trying to deal with (which I’ll get to below), I found their reliance on what appears to be “intellectual dishonesty and scapegoating” actually illustrating the ironic paradox underlying the first two words embedded in the Manifesto’s title: HOW TO fix our schools.”

We’re living in a time of unlimited access to information, yet most of our leaders really don’t know what to do…and more critical is that many of them don’t know they don’t know.

The Manifesto’s “Must” list (below) illustrates the consequences created by this paradox. To emphasize the urgency required by the problems “urban” schools must deal with, they converted the goals that “should” be achieved (if the problem is to be effectively solved) into “musts” and “have-to’s.” But something’s missing: the answer to Deming’s question to everyone who proposed noble goals – “By What Method?” And in their case, this requires knowing ways to do them all — a systemic “given” for a system leader/CEO/Superintendent. And, sadly, the success records of many of its leader/authors suggest they have yet to figure out how to do that.

How can that be? How can so many people who are paid to be “right’ continually be so “wrong?” How can it be that this group of the “best and the brightest” urban school leaders don’t know how to fulfill their role’s primary systemic requirement?

And more important, because of the urgency of the problems they must deal with, apparently do not know there already are working models for how-to-do-it-systemicallyin-education that might meet their present needs.

Here’s their “Musts” and “Have-to’s list:

• (“As educators, superintendents, chief executives and chancellors” ..the task of reforming the country’s public schools begins with us.”)  … and we must be accountable for how our schools perform.

• … must start “with the basics…. the quality of the teacher.”

• … must first shed some of the entrenched practices that have held back our education system, practices that have long favored adults, not children. These practices are wrong, and they have to end now.

• … have to change the rules to professionalize teaching

• … must equip educators with the best technology available to make instruction more effective and efficient. By better using technology to collect data on student learning and shape individualized instruction, we can help transform our classrooms and lessen the burden on teachers’ time.

• … must also eliminate arcane rules such as “seat time,”

• … must give teachers and schools the capability and flexibility to meet the needs of students

•  … also must make charter schools a truly viable option

My reading of this list of the Manifesto’s “methodless” systemic answers left me with 3 related questions:

(1) why does there appear to be so much seeming “nonsense” from those who “should know” from their experiences what’s right for the kids whose capacities for 21st century success they are responsible for developing?

(2) why can’t they think the “unthinkable?” – Get outside the “box” created by the nature and urgency of the “problem” they’ve been asked to solve and discover the “right now” answers available there?  And what is it that enables others dealing with similar conditions to apparently do it?  Then,

(3) What were they thinking?  And here is where their “nonsense” began to make sense to me.  The underlying issue here is not “what,” but how they were thinking, and why.

I’m going to suggest an answer to all three that at first may seem illogical and more “nonsense.”  That’s because it seems like common sense to think of the “problem” our society as a whole is trying to solve as an “urban” one. With scarce resources and time, we believe that’s where we must first “fix” the education “system.” It’s the practical, common sense approach called Triaging – “first stop the bleeding.”


(1) what if the problems causing the bleeding are more deeply embedded in all school systems?  And

(2) what if the “blinders” created by a focus only on urban school systems keep them (and those who hire or try to help them) from seeing effective “how-to’s” that can directly and effectively address the conditions in their “urban musts” list?


So, returning to my original thought that what Valerie and I were each taking away from the Manifesto might be influenced by our belief-shaping experiences, here’s where the nature of my experience (as a foundation-, government-, and professional association-supported “change agent” with school systems of all sizes and nature from rural up though state education agencies) created a different systemic perspective that suggests positive answers to those two “What if…?” questions.

Interestingly, my understanding of the common systemic nature of the work of schooling that urban districts share with all others began locally with the D.C. Public Schools. This initial experience came in 1968 as a national Ford Foundation project I directed (that had engaged me with urban superintendents from Philadelphia, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Rochester NY, the New Jersey State superintendent and a Washington DC Board member) was winding down.  I was asked to serve as the Chair of the Working Party on Instructional Materials for the Executive Study Group for a Model Urban School System for the District of Columbia. Our purpose was to give further study, and recommend actions to implement the recommendations contained in the “Passow Report” – Columbia University’s comprehensive 1967 study of the D.C. Public Schools.

In subsequent years, as the DC system became more and more dysfunctional — regardless of internal and external attempts to “fix” it — I continued to interact in a variety of roles with Board members, teachers, central administrators, and principals. And my most important take-away product of that personal interaction was a realization that my perceptions of the individuals I experienced didn’t seem to match the ways the public perceived them. They were people with “will,” but without “way.” They wanted to make a difference for kids …but the schools had no sustainable ways to tap it. So, when the public saw them not doing what’s best for kids they concluded that they didn’t want to, when the truth was that they couldn’t.

I’ll fast-forward now to the present through a time span of learning experiences that included my work as Associate Executive Director of the “other” national organization that represents the needs of public school systems’ leaders – the AASA, (which brought me into direct interaction with the leadership needs of all size school systems), and finally to the past 12 years when I have been an embedded observer of the ways the Montgomery County MD Public Schools seems to have been addressing the common systemic needs all school districts must address. (And just received one of the Broad Foundation’s 2010 awards for doing it.)

This decades-separated time span is relevant because it frames the state of my present understanding. From one experience — in “urban” DC — I took away a theory that made sense about the systemic scope and nature of a school district. From the other — in “suburban” Montgomery County – I’ve been taking away practical insights about how that “theory” translates into systemic practice regardless of a community’s demographics. For 12 years I’ve been using theory to  “catch them doing something right” in practice, and as a by-product, discovering another, “missing,” level of theory emerging from it.

It related back to the “will” with no “way” earlier observation. Here was a school system developing “ways” to work systemically by effectively engaging the “will” of all of its employees and stakeholdersspecifically, their personal need to make a difference for kids whose lives they touch today.  What’s the evidence? In a recent letter to the editor, a (usually despised) “union” leader and moreover, one who represents employees who in many districts aren’t considered “educators” – service employees — noted how

….“every adult who interacts with a student in any way understands he or she has an opportunity to make a difference for that student, be it as a role model, a shoulder to lean on, an example of pride in good work, or simply a smiling face… our relationship (with the system) has always been based on what’s right for the kids, and we’ve always known our ties are only as strong as our commitment to a system that produces exceptional results.”


“But enough about me”… responses to Answer Sheet’s postings often capture the frustrations of those who feel that everything-seems-connected-to-everything-else, but don’t have ways to make sense of the disconnected “nonsense.” Can the perspective that frames the knowledge on this site make it easier to deal with it?

I believe it can…not just for the Manifesto, but also for “Waiting for Superman,” which unfortunately leaves the impression that there are singular causes (unions and bureaucracies) and singular solutions (charter schools and individual teachers who “really” care) to the “urban” schooling problems…  and about Michelle Rhee, whose fate was determined from the start, not by the good things she “knew” about “teachers,” but by the essential things she “didn’t know” about the district’s accountability for the connected “teaching process” that’s required for them to successfully perform their necessary role every day… and who unfortunately “didn’t know she didn’t know it”… and, judging by her departing comments, most likely still doesn’t.

At the same time, I also know how this way-of-thinking can be a frustration-adder because its hard to suggest better answers to questions that aren’t being asked … and recognizing why.  I sometimes try to relieve it through venting in blogs like Answer Sheet. But most of it has been poured into this new web/blog site — — a work-in-progress developed with help from two national organizations committed to “re-thinking.” It’s for those trying to make sense of the disconnected “nonsense” swirling around schooling today who are seeking to “get out of the box” that limits their thinking and “connect the dots” in ways that make better sense.

The previous posting focused on the thinking crisis that continues to paralyze America’s school reforms and offers a good example of why. “The School Reform Game” cites Robert J. Samuelson’s 9/6/10 Newsweek article, “Why School ‘Reform’ Fails: Student motivation is the problem” as an example of the nature of the thinking problem, why we don’t think about it, and what can be done to re-think it.

Samuelson’s article presents an accurate picture of the playing field on which the ”school reform” game is being played. He correctly identifies all the players involved  – adults and children… noting that it’s a game no one is winning… and then concludes that once more no one will.

But the hole in his analysis is his assumption that we know what “game” is being played. That’s where the posting draws on actual school system practice this site has been documenting to suggest what happens when everybody in a school system understands the purpose of the game their team is playing, and works from the same game plan.

I’ll continue to use this sense-making platform to address in more detail some of the “nonsense” about “Superman,” “superwoman” – Michelle Rhee, and the Race-to-the-Top.

•            For example, one upcoming posting has a working title: 22,026 Supermen…No Waiting!” It’s probes the Superman metaphor as a way for describing the “hope” that for decades has driven reformers (and practitioners) in a fruitless search for someone or something with “enough power to save us” so we can make the differences in kids lives that we want to make. (Sarason once called this belief:  “Someday there will be enough…”)

But before trying to find the Superman (or Wonder Woman) we’re waiting for — someone with the power to do what “ordinary” people here on earth apparently can’t — it reminds us what we already know about the original “Superman.” He was only “super” on Earth. Back on his home planet – Krypton – everyone had his power to make a difference.

Based on that principle, it points to MCPS’ experience helping 22,026 individuals develop a way-of-thinking that releases their power to make a difference everyday, and suggests that what the films producer says he actually was looking for when he started to make the documentary can exist outside the limited universe of charter schools that people believe first have to be freed from “restraining control” of bureaucracies and unions.

What was the filmmaker looking for?  In interviews and articles he’s claimed he started out looking for places where each child gets a good teacher; … the school is safe; and the principal has high expectations for every kid.” And soon found that he was looking for schools with processes that apparently put children first. Processes that kept teachers “bright and focused.” That created “relationships between a child and teacher” and which left “kids walking to class with a sense of purpose and an excitement for learning.” And underlying it all he was looking for places that recognized that even if they didn’t know exactly how to do it, they knew they had to impact all children, not just some, and had to start now.

The posting will then focus his original lens on MCPS as a way of understanding the nature of what a school district can do to develop for all what a Charter School can only offer to some. And especially the critical roles the “unions” and the “bureaucracy” play in it.

•            A second posting in the works – “If you don’t know what you Need… then any superintendent can get you there!addresses the immediate need faced by both the Montgomery County and Washington DC schools to find new a new leader who can sustain and move beyond what’s already been achieved.

To illustrate the nature of the knowledge their Boards need in order to establish appropriate criteria, it notices DC’s tradition of “Throwing out the Babies with the Bathtub.” This recurring event seems caused by the lack of systemic awareness that every time they throw out a superintendent (six of the “best and brightest” in the last decade,) they also throw out the “bathtub” in which DC’s children are immersed every day — the structure of supportive processes and practices that keep people throughout the system “afloat.”

It will raise questions about the school district as “Bathtub” – the necessary container that is created with a single purpose (develop the learning capacities of all kids),…

— and which must hold everybody (the children and adults) and everything (what they do alone and together in learning and teaching) needed to achieve that purpose…

— and within which trust is the “water” they float in – the medium that makes it possible to create and sustain supportive relationships required to achieve their individual and collective purposes.

•            A third posting under development – Racing to the Top without a Race Car — addresses the current “nonsense”-producing aspects of the “Race-to-the-Top” initiative’s communications. And how, in the end, the school system or district is the only interconnected “vehicle” that can “win” the race.

That’s because as a national strategy, it’s intended to impact the quality of learning and teaching in ALL classrooms and its only that strategic scope that gives sense-making meaning to it’s seemingly-separate tactics. Unfortunately, Obama and Duncan are contributing to the “nonsense” by failing to communicate that connection. That may be why the words seem to have different meanings for them than for their critics … and when it comes to making sense of the effort, that difference makes all the difference.

For example, from that strategic perspective, I like their approach.  it makes sense to start with “states” because their policies and practices create the “structures” and “processes” that in the end must support the development of the learning capacities of EACH child regardless of what classroom, in what school, in what district they are in.

That makes the fundamental unit of “turnaround” not the “school”… but the school “system” … the “Bathtub” in which can be embedded the sustained capacity to develop EACH child’s learning capacity. A capacity, as we can now see in MCPS, is represented by a functional collaboration of adults who share responsibility for that development, and who have the information and support to fulfill their personal accountabilities in doing it. But it is the district that’s accountable for those “teaching” processes.

And it makes sense right now to add “charter schools” to their mix because unfortunately that’s the only seemingly-manageable unit today where people can “see” results in terms of the positive actions of actual kids and teachers. There have been few “district” models that can support that kind of emotional understanding evoked by “Waiting for Superman.”


I’ll conclude with my initial thought about Answer Sheet’s value for me as a “nonsense-destroying” question generator. And especially when it leads to fundamental questions for which there are answers… but which are questions not being asked.

A fundamental premise of this Sabusense website is that underlying all the seeming nonsense today there is, as Sherlock Holmes might say, a “dog not barking.” When he faced a dilemma like education’s where none of the answers to what seemed to be the problem made sense, he pointed to something there all along that wasn’t being noticed — a “dog” that didn’t bark.” An “X-factor,” or as lawyers say, “facts not in evidence.” And he asked, “Why?” Why couldn’t it be heard or seen?

The nature of that “X-factor” can be found embedded under several of the “buttons” on this site’s home page as well as in several prior postings. It’s the one that Peter Senge identified when he observed:

“Many confronting the deeper nature of our problems cry out that the solution lies in “fixing education.” But you cannot “fix” a structure that was never designed for learning in the first place.”

Is Senge’s observation more “nonsense,” or does it have implications for the current, disconnected efforts at national reform that may once again only produce incremental, non-sustainable change in the fundamental ways that schools make a difference for all children?

And on the ground of “right now” local practice, how might it explain the Montgomery County schools success developing what seem to outside observers to be effective systemic “answers” by creating processes that enable the right people to be asking the “right questions” at the right time, and then providing the support to discover and develop “answers” that work for them?

I’d welcome anyone interested in exploring the seeming incongruity of this up-to-now missing piece in the sense-making jigsaw puzzle to join me here.


Comment from Bob Valiant
Time October 28, 2010 at 9:50 am

Lew- I hadn’t seen your name for many years but was happy to stumble on your site. I look forward to reading your postings and sharing them with other activists around the country. My head is already hurting from this first encounter, but I will take an aspirin and plunge on.

Comment from admin
Time October 28, 2010 at 10:29 am

Bob -Great to connect again…and I apologize for the “pain”, but this time you were forewarned by the “Surgeon General’s Warning” in the upper right corner (so you know I “feel your pain”)
…so “take your aspirin and call me in the morning…” 🙂

and, as I recall your interest in the “brain”, I’d be interested in your thoughts about the approach to it here based on “cognitive BIOLOGY” rather than “mind PSYCHOLOGY” – it makes a lot more sense to now as a way to map the territory.

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