Turnover is a fact of life in educational organizations. They have been particularly prevalent recently.

I have written numerous times about this phenomenon.

Of specific interest is Andrew Blum’s recent post in the Harvard Business Review about what a new leader should do to transition from a bad leader. His advice is applicable regardless of the quality of the previous leader.

  1. Acknowledge the contributions of the previous team.
  2. Enable a vision for the future by creating a space for forgiveness.
  3. Seek to understand your employee’s experience.

“Whether it’s replacing an outgoing CEO or a president, leaders who commit to these practices will unlock the energy and wisdom of the people they lead. In so doing, they will help create a future that is distinct from the past and that makes sense for everyone.”

Use your “honeymoon period” carefully and strategically. Yes, you can probably do most anything legal and get away with it. But you will carry whatever you do as baggage through the rest of your tenure.

Make a thoughtful and caring transition the hallmark of your leadership.


Roger Cook, the superintendent who retired from a Kentucky district with multiple years of zero dropouts, began talking to his students early on about how cool it would be to work in his school district. This was not just a line, he really made it exciting to work in his district.

I interviewed 25 of his staff while writing my books and each and every one of them got a smile on their face when they spoke about working there, He began building his pipeline very early with his students. While we were at dinner one night, a young lady came up and introduced herself as a junior in education at one of the state universities. She said she could not think of a better job than to come and work for Mr. Cook after she graduated.

In this age of limited resources building a pipeline is just as essential as hiring and training effective staff. In their article on building a better pipeline in Harvard Business Review, Joiselle Cunningham and Angela Jackson talk about recruiting and developing talent for a more diverse workforce.

If young people of color continue to be overburdened with debt and are not provided with a fair chance to gain the skills they need to pursue their interests, companies and communities will lose out on their talent, passions, and contributions. Supporting young people and their aspirations can build the inclusive economy that our nation needs.

This is particularly true for educational organizations since (for a number of reasons) we are not always the first career choice for talented individuals. Isn’t it time to develop a pipeline of talented students who will be enthusiastic about a career in education?

Gladwell’s History

I confess haven’t spent the requisite 10,000 hours reading his books and listening to his podcasts, but I like Malcom Gladwell’s work. His stories bring unrealized facts to light.

I have just finished listening to the first thirty minutes of the podcast entitled Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustmentan explanation of what the supreme court should have said in the Brown vs. Board decision. The Browns were not dissatisfied with the quality of the school their daughter was to attend, they simply wanted a school that was much closer to where they lived. It happened to be a school for white students.

The court framed their decision around the inferiority of the education that the black schools provided. In Topeka, where the Brown’s lived, that was not the case. And although I disagree with Gladwell’s characterization of racial prejudice as strictly a “Southern” philosophy (I seem to remember the integration of Northern schools was just as rancorous), I admit that the text of the decision seems to echo that bias.

By focusing on the race of the students and not the quality of the education provided, the court laid the groundwork for districts to close black schools to comply. In the wake of those closures almost all of the teachers and administrators in those schools were dismissed. And nearly 70 years after that decision, for a number of reasons, we still are not able to hire enough educators of color.

Why is that important?

Research says that black students that have at least one black teacher during their  education are more likely to succeed.

Future Funding

The economic results of social distancing will be long term. Federal, state, and local budgets will be trimmed. Educational organizations that depend upon these budgets will once again be asked to “do more with less.” And while they are typically under-resourced, the next two years will be particularly harsh.

Most districts are still in the covid19 response mode. But you must prepare your budgets for FY 20-21. Although most school funding comes from property taxes, this slowdown will reduce other revenue and result in strained budgets. You will, of course, still ask for what you actually need. But I expect those organizations that are fiscally dependent will be told there will be budget reductions. Those that are fiscally independent are already experiencing those reductions, especially if the millage is related to sales tax.

In order to prepare, consider doing the following:

  1. Freeze current operating expenditures and require every exception to be justified.
  2. The end of the fiscal year typically comes with some funds left over. “Christmas in July” isn’t coming this year. Do not use the funding surplus for one-time purchases as you have in the past. Use those funds to pay operating expenses forward into the next fiscal year.
  3. Identify all of your activities and weight those activities in order of strategic importance. Ask staff to participate in applying priorities as well as finding more efficient ways to deliver results. (There are several decision-making tools that can help with this.)
  4. Do not cut the budgets across the board. Fund the high priority activities first. And fund in descending order. This may mean that some low priority legacy programs will be eliminated and other lower priority programs will be funded at minimum.
  5. This downturn will affect capital expenditures unevenly. Since construction was allowed to proceed in many jurisdictions, prices have remained high. The exception will be those materials that are petroleum-based. So prices overall may be stable or slightly lower depending upon the specific scope of work. Fiscally dependent districts may be told to reduce capital cash flow as well, since many jurisdictions limit their long term debt to a percentage of their operating budget.

I anticipate that unlike the last recovery, this one should be faster. But it depends upon the availability of reliable tests, the ability to track exposures, and the implementation of a vaccine protocol. Since budget preparation is typically an annual exercise with no upward adjustment when more revenue than anticipated is collected, we are facing at least two lean years in our educational organizations. It is better to be prepared.



Everything that everybody knows is usually wrong.  – Peter Drucker

Everybody knows that to positively affect a change effort, you should concentrate on enlisting the 80% of the employees that are predisposed to the effort or are “on the fence” and forget about the 20% that are openly negative or unconvinced.

One successful turnaround expert says that she concentrates on convincing the naysayers. Why waste her time? Because, as she explained, these are the people that when convinced will be loyal to the cause. Whereas, those that are easily convinced, or are unaffiliated can become less enthusiastic about the change and even be attracted to the next popular cause.

Never thought of it that way!



How many goals do you have?

Are they written in unambiguous language?

Does everyone in your organization know them by heart?

How are you going to measure success?

In its most basic form, this is what strategy is all about. No matter what process you have used to develop your goals, they should be less than five in number, simply stated, internalized by everyone in the organization, and measured using LEADING indicators.

Let me give you an illustration… Most educational institutions will spend three to six months writing a strategic plan. The plan has some worthwhile goals and may actually be fairly specific as to what the targets are. These goals are either set knowing what the measures will be (e.g. raising test scores) or not (e.g. student success). In either case leading indicators are tough to come by or nonexistent. When pressed, district administrators will provide you with the methodologies they are employing to accomplish the districts goals, but are generally at a loss to demonstrate the leading indicators that point to progress toward those goals.

Our formative testing is showing that our students are improving!

OK. Is there a long term correlation between those formatives and the summatives?

Our graduation rates are steadily increasing!

OK. Is there a long term correlation between graduation rates and student success?

My friends, there is a great deal of work to be done. Are you willing?



Where to Find a Consultant

Here is the dillemma:

You can hire a “consultant” for your school district who is a retired local administrator.

The advantage is that there is little or no learning curve and no travel expense. Since this consultant has worked in your district, they know the issues and the players and can begin to solve whatever issue you need help on immediately.

The disadvantage is that they are too familiar with the issue and may even have been trying to solve it while they were still an employee of the district.

Seth Godin has written recently about this dillemma. “If a problem is worth solving, it’s worth engaging with the right people to solve it with urgency, isn’t it?”

Peter Drucker often claimed that his lack of knowledge of a specific local issue was his greatest strength as a consultant. His perpective as an outsider allowed him the ability to ask the appropriate questions and discover the solution for which he was hired.

  • The cost of a consultant should be only one consideration in the selection of a consultant.
  • Diversity of experience should be another.
  • However, solving a similar problem may or may not be a criteria since some will seek to apply a square peg solution that has worked in the past to a round hole problem.

I have participated in many selection processes. I have made presentations. I have selected consultants. I have advised committee members on selections. I can’t recall a single presentation in which the consultant did not claim to listen to their prospective clients. Just as the written material usually boasts that the consultant is uniquely qualified.

The best advice is to choose a consultant that matches the issue.

  • If the problem is chronic, select an outsider.
  • If the issue is new, use an insider.
  • If you want plausible deniability for the proposed solution, hire an outsider. If you want confirmation of a solution you have developed internally, pick an insider with peerless credentials.
  • If you need an innovative solution because everyone familiar with the problem has tried and failed, call on an outsider.

As a planner and project manager, my preference has always been to hire a problem solver with a proven process, but not an answer. A thoughtful selection is the best path to a satisfying experience!



I have been reading Pasi Sahlberg’s book on the lessons to be learned from Finland’s successful education program. Dominant in the PISA assessments since their inception in 2000, this Scandinavian country which set out deliberately to improve its educational system in the 1970’s is used by reformers and politicians alike as the exemplar of high academic standards. And yet, we have largely failed to learn from their experience and methodologies. Increasing the competition among schools, assigning letter grades to schools based upon high stakes testing for a handful of subjects, and denigrating the profession as a group of inadequate part-timers is neither productive nor factual.

Ifinnish lessonsf we cannot learn from Finland’s success, then we should not use the PISA scores as evidence that our educational system is in need of reform. If you decry our mediocrity in international testing, then learn from the international leaders. Emphasize the importance of all subjects, not just those that are tested. Treat our teachers as professionals and compensate them accordingly. Do not hold back those students who have mastered the content. Apply special education as a resource to all students who have difficulty and apply it immediately. Personalize the delivery of learning to each student, not simply through software, but through empathetic personal connections to caring adults.

It’s time to offer practical help and solutions, not just criticism. Take Finland as an example. Take it to heart.

Passive Listening – a rant

owlActive listening is a technique used to make the person speaking believe you understand their message. Many practitioners use the tools  – the knowing head nod, the slight smile, the “So what you are saying is…” (actually reflective, not active, but frequently used), and mirroring the body language. I was recently subjected to this from a professional active listener. She was so good at the technique, I almost forgot what was happening as I spoke. Then came the response. It was clear she was good at the active part, but lousy at the listening part.

Listening is an exercise in empathy and understanding. It is not an exercise in forming a contrasting argument. Next time you have occasion to hear someone speak, try passively listening – listening for learning, not retort. The speaker will thank you for it.

Thank you for listening!


Personalized Learning

In her February 24 commentary in Education Week, Jenifer Carolan, co-founding partner of Reach Capital makes a solid point about personalized learning.

…personalization does not mean isolation, and it doesn’t mean sitting our students down in front of laptops all day. Personalization is a strategy that allows us to adapt to the needs of all children, preferably after giving them a powerful, shared learning experience that motivates them to dive deeper.

The most productive PL is collaborative – a group of three or four students working together to solve an “impossible” problem, or a student working diligently with a teacher/coach nearby prodding and praising. While the technology provides the access to the information, the social connection is the all-important ingredient that creates the knowledge.