Ten School Leadership Lessons Inspired by The Godfather

The Godfather is arguably one of the best books and movies ever produced.  While the violence associated with the film should never be glorified, there are many messages in the movie that can be used to inspire thoughtful leadership in education.  My wife, Debbie, and I collaborated to bring you the following ten lessons inspired by the Godfather:

1.  “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”

Leave the hostility. When working with families and staff you will get farther with patience and tact.  Give yourself a buffer of time if you feel emotion creeping into your decision-making process.

2.  “Someday, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me.”

This reflects the importance of building a strong community.  We should rely on each other- teachers, parents, and the community. Teaching is still a service industry and when we treat it that way our customers truly benefit.

3.  “Never tell anybody outside the family what you’re thinking again.”

A staff should have common goals, a philosophy that drives decision-making.  When we speak to parents, we need to speak with one voice.  Differences should be handled behind closed doors, when we exit, we should present a united front.

4.  “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

School should be a welcome place for all.  This includes school staff, children, parents, and families. Strong community schools are the heart of education.  We want our schools to be so engaging they can’t refuse to come.

5.  “Mr. Corleone is a man who insists on hearing bad news immediately.”

Ignoring the “bad news” in education keeps us from proactively making changes. Responding in an efficient manner to potential negatives gives us time to react, time to let it sink in, time to strategize, and most importantly, time to respond.

6.  “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”

To keep your saw sharpened, you need to be connected to people and passions outside of work.  Spending time with family and friends helps keep things in perspective. It makes you a better person and a more able leader.  Establishing family-centered values provides reassurance to your staff which will make them better at what they do.

7.  “What’s the matter with you? I think your brain is going soft.”

Though sometimes uncomfortable, leaders need to hold people accountable.  Ignoring employees who are unable to work up to the accepted standards only adds to the burden of those around them.  Establish consistent expectations for everyone and speak up when it’s important.

8.  “It would be a shame if a few rotten apples spoiled the whole barrel.”

There are great things happening in classrooms every day.  Don’t let media coverage, or poorly informed public opinion, distract you from the amazing job teachers do every day for kids.  School leaders should shine the light on all of the great things going on in their buildings.

9.  “Never get angry,” the Don had instructed. “Never make a threat. Reason with people.”

We need to remember that when it comes to children, parents are protective.  We all want to believe our children are bright and capable and when someone tells us differently we can get angry.  In the schoolhouse, it is especially important that we keep our emotions under control.

10.  “Great men (and women) are not born great, they grow great . . .”

Every day we are fortunate to be part of the growth of children and witness the evolution of the greatness that is within every student in our school.  Despite the challenges that our students face, we CAN make a difference.  If we maintain that belief, our students will reach the highest heights!

Who knew?  So much wisdom in a classic film.  What movie quotes can you connect to teaching and leadership?

Debbie Wooleyhand (@ppw78) is a veteran educator and pupil personnel worker for a large Maryland school district.

Offering Mr. Duncan A “Re-do”

One of the current hot topics in teaching is the concept of a “re-do.”  Proponents of the re-do consider it an opportunity for students to show what they know when their efforts fall short of the expected standards.  Compassionate teachers know that measuring students at one point in time has its faults.  Re-dos allow wiggle room for teachers and students.  Re-dos offer students a way to dig themselves out of potential failure.

In that same spirit, it is time for a re-do in public education.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan needs to ask the American public for a re-do on his quickly failing policies.  Race to the Top, the Common Core State Standards and a poorly designed teacher evaluation system are seriously flawed.

Parents, students, politicians, administrators, and teachers question the rationale behind the U.S. Department of Education’s current efforts on school reform.  The major stakeholders in education no longer have faith in the direction of federal and state mandates.

School systems are being held hostage because they accepted federal funds to adopt the Common Core and its associated guidelines for testing and teacher evaluation.  Many states lack the courage to stand up to the feds.  Teachers in New York, however, are calling for a testing moratorium and pulling their support for the Common Core:


Is it possible that Mr. Duncan will stand up and admit that while his intentions were good, his policies are failing?  Is it worth it to alienate parents, students, and teachers in the process of reforming American schools?  What harm is there in stepping back a minute to re-evaluate the state of education in America?  I assure you that, in the absence of a testing-heavy accountability system, teachers will continue to work hard and do what is best for their students.

Mr. Duncan, it’s okay to ask for a re-do.  It will give you time to fix your mistakes and, in the end, you might just create an enduring legacy.  Imagine how fondly historians would portray you if you were the one politician who admitted he was wrong and did something about it.  There is time to fix your grade.  The re-do must be submitted soon, otherwise failure is inevitable.  You’re on the clock.

Finding Common Ground Response

In his recent Finding Common Ground (Education Week) blog, Peter DeWitt outlined ten critical issues facing education today.  He listed the following areas that need our attention:

Common Core State Standards
Student Learning
Social Media
High Stakes Testing
School Leadership
Pre-service Teaching Programs
School Climate

That’s a pretty thorough list.  Peter ended his article with a question:  What would you add to the list?  Here are three that I would add:

Parent Involvement
Students whose parents are involved in their education achieve greater success than students with uninvolved parents (http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED315199).  Schools must find ways to increase parental involvement.  Invite them into the schoolhouse, support them, and never assume that they are unable or unwilling to help their child.

Connected Teaching/Learning
Peter touches on this under “student learning.”  Teachers must be supported and empowered to connect their teaching to “real world” issues.  Thomas Friedman noted in The World Is Flat, that the United States needs to continually update the skills of its workforce.  Politicians and school leaders must support teachers in their efforts to make learning meaningful.

Early Childhood Education
If we are to address the disparities our children face before they ever enter a school building, we must take a stand on mandatory pre-kindergarten programs.  These early childhood education programs should focus on the development of the whole child.  Early childhood programs should be language rich, stimulating environments that give children the opportunity for the same experiences that affluent children have.  They should not be over-tested, data-collecting warehouses that take all of the fun out of learning.

So, there are three more for Peter’s list.  That makes thirteen.  Hmm, can someone help a certified triskaidekaphobic by coming up with at least one more?

Peter DeWitt’s full blog:


Weingarten Gets It

“We can’t reclaim the promise of public education without investing in strong neighborhood public schools that are safe, collaborative and welcome environments for students, parents, educators and the broader community. Schools where teachers and school staff are well-prepared and well-supported, with manageable class sizes and time to collaborate. Schools with rigorous standards aligned to an engaging curriculum that focuses on teaching and learning, not testing, and that includes art, music, civics and the sciences — and where all kids’ instructional needs are met.”

-Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers in the Washington Post Answer Sheet column by Valerie Strauss.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has made a stand that resonates with many educators.  It is possible to embrace the Common Core Standards while being critical of the testing that has accompanied their roll-out.  Being quick to find fault is a habit engrained in American culture.  Many are critical of the new standards.  Ironically, few of those critics are actually educators.

Weingarten is president of the second largest teachers union in the country.  One might suspect that she is only looking out for her constituency.  That, of course, is her job.  Yet, advocating for her teachers ultimately benefits children.  Weingarten makes a connection that so many policymakers have missed.  When teachers are treated fairly and rationally, they are better educators.

States are using value-added models to evaluate and rate teachers.  These measures are attached to the funds that states have received through Race to the Top.  In other words, states have been coerced into using test scores to develop complicated evaluation tools for teachers.  There is little evidence that VAM-based evaluation tools have been, or will be, accurate and fair to teachers.

By circumstance, principals stand in the middle of this political mess.  They have been thrust into a quagmire of illogical formulas designed to quantify the art of teaching.  Rather than being overwhelmed by this predicament, principals should be a voice of reason and sound thinking.

While diligently serving as the interpreters of educational change, principals can make sure that good teachers don’t flee a profession they love.  The adoption of the Common Core should be separated from the assessment-focused milieu that has been forced on schools.  Principals can, and must, do this for their teachers.  Principals can foster a transition to the Common Core that does not alienate teachers in the process.  If they can’t accomplish this, who can?

Link to full Washington Post article:



Edweek Rankings: What really matters when it comes to student achievement?

Education Week’s annual Quality Counts report was released January 9th.  Depending on past performance, states were either eager to find out how they did or cringing while they waited for their results.  Many states use the report as a feel-good moment to pat themselves on the back.  The rest start spinning negative results into positives before the report even hits their doorsteps.

The Quality Counts report is comprehensive and complicated.  It contains enough variables that most states should at least be able to find some positives within their results.  After reviewing the report, however, one may begin to question the relationship between student achievement, standards, assessment, and accountability.

The standards, assessment, and accountability rankings are based on test items used to measure student performance, the alignment of assessments to academic standards, as well as the rewards, assistance, and sanctions states provide schools.  The student achievement rankings factor in NAEP scores, high school graduation rates, and AP test scores.

The table below illustrates an interesting point:

State Ranking for K-12 Student Achievement(score/grade) State Ranking for Standards,   Assessment, and Accountability (score/grade)
Massachusetts 1   (83.7 B) 23   (88.4 B+)
Maryland 2   (83.1 B) 44   (88.3 B+)
New Jersey 3   (81.1 B-) 24   (75.5 C)
Indiana 12   (72.8 C) 1   (97.8 A)
Louisiana 49   (59.8 D-) 2   (97.2 A)
West Virginia 47   (60.8 D-) 3   (96.7 A)

A converse relationship seems to exist between standards, assessment, and accountability when compared to student achievement.  The three states with the highest rankings in student achievement (MA, MD, and NJ) are less impressive in the standards, assessment, and accountability rankings.  The three states ranked highest in standards, assessment, and accountability (IN, LA, and WV) struggle to measure up when it comes to student achievement.

Simply put, Education Week’s Quality Counts report calls into question the need to focus on state standards, assessment, and accountability.  States like Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Maryland have raised academic rigor without being waylaid by the demands of standards, assessment, and accountability.  The states that have directed their energy at compliance with federal guidelines have done so without benefit to their students.

No one is questioning the need for standards, assessment, and accountability.  Schools and teachers have always been, and will always be, accountable.  The Quality Counts report, however, illustrates that states would be better off focusing on quality teacher training, instruction, and compensation rather than the minutia associated with standards, assessment, and accountability.

Highlights from the 2014 Quality Counts report can be accessed at the link below:


Meet Peter DeWitt, Ed.D.

Author, speaker, and school leader, Peter DeWitt (@PeterMDeWitt) will guest host #mdeschat on January 9th at 9:00 p.m.  Peter is a NY principal currently on sabbatical.  He is a great resource for educators who are seeking to understand many of the national issues currently affecting schools.  I sat down with Dr. DeWitt for a Q&A to find out more about him and his professional pursuits.

You are currently on sabbatical.  What are you doing with all that “free” time?

Not sure I would call it free time! Seriously, I’m working on a variety of projects. First and foremost I’m a Visible Learning trainer for John Hattie. I will be working with schools around North America on his approach to learning, which I will get into a little more in the next question.

Secondly, I’m co-authoring a book with Sean Slade, the Director of the Whole Child Initiative (ASCD). He and I are writing a book for ASCD that focuses on school climate. Sean and I are both on the National School Climate Council (I’m the co-chair) which is the steering committee for the National School Climate Center.

In addition, I am writing a book for Corwin Press on flipped leadership which is something I did a great deal of as a school principal, and I’m working as an independent consultant working with schools on flipped leadership, school climate and teacher evaluation.

I’m very fortunate because, although they are all great projects, it was a hard decision because I love my school community. I work with great teachers, kids and parents. I’m thankful my school district offered me the leave of absence.

One of your current interests is “visible learning.”  How do you define visible learning?

Visible Learning comes from Professor John Hattie. Hattie is a Professor of Education and the Director of Research at the University of Melbourne. He did the largest meta-analysis in education which involved over ¼ billion students.

Although it’s a huge amount of research, I would quickly define Visible Learning as the teacher and student working together on a combined goal that they both can see at all times. Three questions to ask, whether you are the teacher or the student are:

  • Where am I going?
  • How am I going?
  • Where am I going to next?

What have you learned from writing your Finding Common Ground blog for Education Week?

This is such a great question because I feel that we should always learn something as we go through the writing process. Writing for Education Week has really changed my life. I’ve gotten the chance to get to know the people that I have long admired like Michael Fullan, Todd Whitaker, Diane Ravitch and Carol Ann Tomlinson. I have also had the opportunity to connect with educators around the world which has been a great experience.

Over all, as I write I am usually questioning something. I may not be questioning another person’s ideas as much as I’m questioning my own long held beliefs. Education is really complicated and it’s often the adults involved who complicate everything. Everyone has strong ideas on what they believe works.

One of the areas that I’m passionate about is making sure every student has a place at the table when it comes to decision-making. I did my doctoral work on how well school leaders safeguard LGBT students, which became my first book for Corwin Press called Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students. I found that in too many schools we have marginalized populations that are not treated very well and that needs to change. I believe writing Finding Common Ground has helped me find my own voice so that I can speak for students and teachers who don’t have the power to speak for themselves.

New York is ahead of many states in implementing and assessing the Common Core.  What lessons can you share with the states that are a few steps behind?

The New York State Education Department, under the leadership of Regent’s Chair Merryl Tisch and Commissioner John King, has done a deplorable rollout of the Common Core to the point that parents want to see the Common Core go away. Before schools were ever provided with the proper resources King and Tisch made sure the 3rd – 8th grade high stakes assessments were tied to the Core, which were ultimately tied to teacher and administrator evaluation.

What’s worse is that the state assessments only provide schools with a number of 1,2,3 or 4 which is based on a cut point. They do not provide an item-analysis of where students did well and where they faltered.

All of this came when they were rolling out the Common Core and now school leaders are scrambling to try to differentiate between the Core and high stakes testing. There is absolutely no trust between the public school system and the state education department which is really sad because it wasn’t always that way.

I think if I could offer any advice to states is that they should see what NY did and do the opposite. I typically try to find common ground but I can’t where this situation is concerned.

How do you balance your personal life with your professional commitments?

Not very well! It’s always been one of my biggest issues. I get so passionate about education that it is hard to turn it off. I love learning and thrive on the connections that I have made with people in my life as a school leader, workshop facilitator or speaker, and through my connections I’ve made on Twitter.

When I was young, my grandparents had all passed away by the time I was 7, my dad passed when I was 11 and I was retained in fourth grade. I struggled academically throughout my school career, was a sub-sophomore because I lacked the credits to be a full-fledged sophomore and graduated fourth from last in my graduating class. I dropped out of two community colleges and was working at a liquor store. Fortunately, I was a long distance runner and I went to a community college for my last attempt, because that school had a X-country team. My coach encouraged me (forced…) to go to the Learning Assistance Center. That semester my grades went from a 1.7 to a 3.86 and they never went down again.

Something clicked with me, due to the family, friends and teachers around me, and I became successful in the very thing I failed at so many years ago. It’s hard to turn that off when you know there are many kids in that same position.

Can you give us 5 “must follow” people on Twitter?

Uh oh…the pressure is on! Only five??? This is not an easy question because there are so many great educators out there worth following. Besides two powerhouses, I’m going to have to go to a few of my New York friends for this one.

Todd Whitaker – Everyone knows Todd but he wrote the single best book I ever read as a leader. That book is What Great Principals Do Differently and it’s a must read for any school leader. Besides that he is an outstanding speaker and has some of the best one-liners I’ve ever heard.

Eric Sheninger – Eric is doing tremendous things when it comes to connected leadership. I’m in the middle of reviewing his new book for Corwin and it is going to be a huge success.

My NY Colleagues:

Tony Sinanis – https://twitter.com/TonySinanis

Vicki Day – https://twitter.com/VictoriaL_Day

Lisa Meade – https://twitter.com/LisaMeade23

Thanks, Peter!  We appreciate your support of #mdeschat and the example you set for school leaders across the country.  To learn more about Peter DeWitt, visit his webpage: