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:

http://www.petermdewitt.com/

Here’s to a “promising” 2014!

I held fast to December, but 2014 is upon us and I am determined to welcome it with my full enthusiasm.  While I have never been one to make New Year’s resolutions, I think it’s a good practice for educators to look inward at key points during the year.  January is a good time to reflect on what the second half of the school year will bring.

When I reflect on the remaining months of the school year, I wonder what significant contributions I can make to my school community.  What can I do for students, teachers, and families that will make a difference to them? After almost 27 years in education, I still question whether I make a difference.  I know it will be time to retire if I ever stop asking that question.  So, here is what I will try to do. You can call it a list of resolutions, but it is really a list of promises.

-Show up. Okay, that sounds weak, but our profession requires our presence. Outside of my family, my school has to be my biggest priority.  Schools require leadership that is consistent and supportive.  I will be there for my students, teachers, and families.

-Make decisions based on what is best for children. This seems like another obvious promise, but I’m sure that my colleagues have been challenged by all of the external factors that can cloud a school leader’s vision. I will keep my focus on children first and handle the adult issues within the context of what is best for children.

-Listen before problem solving. I have the word “listen” taped to the wall I face when I sit at my desk. School leaders are (or at least should be) natural problem solvers. Often, however, we try to get right to the bottom of an issue so that we can solve it as quickly as possible. The first step to helping someone is truly LISTENING to their concerns. I will give my full attention to students, teachers, and parents BEFORE assisting them with their challenges.

-Bring joy to my work. This is not hard. I LOVE what I do. Oh, I don’t love it every day, but I love it most days. School leaders who bring joy to their schools set a tone that permeates every fiber of their buildings. When students, teachers, and families feel that joy, they pass it on and it multiplies. I will try, every day, to bring joy to my students, teachers, and parents.

That’s it, just four simple promises (resolutions). If I can do those four things then everything else should fall in line, right? Maybe I’ll print this out and tape it to my wall.

Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen, Oh My!

In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the factors that lead to the explosion of an idea or social behavior.  He specifically addresses three types of people who make things happen in society.  Gladwell calls them connectors, mavens, and salesmen.  While he doesn’t discuss these terms in relation to education, his ideas translate well to our profession.  Let’s first consider how Gladwell describes the people who make things happen.

Connectors
Connectors know lots of people, in fact, they seem to know everyone.  They have an instinctive and natural gift for making social connections.  They know lots of people by occupying many different worlds, subcultures, and niches.  Connectors are curious, self-confident, and energetic.

Mavens
Mavens are knowledge accumulators.  Once they discover something they want to share it with everyone.  They want to educate and help.  They have a message to share with anyone wise enough to listen.  To be a maven is to be a teacher and a student.

Salesmen
Salesmen are persuaders.  The have an innate ability to convince you that what they are selling is worth buying.  They use verbal and non-verbal communication to bring people around to their way of thinking.  Great salesmen sell you things you didn’t even know you needed.

Mavens are data banks.  They provide the message.  Connectors are the social glue.  They spread the message.  Salesmen get you to “buy” the idea.

If we see ourselves as connectors, mavens, and salesmen, we can turn the tide of school reform in favor of those who actually work with children.  If we resolve to become connectors, mavens, and salesmen, we can spend more time on the things that matter to students and their learning.  Let’s co-opt Gladwell’s ideas for education and redefine them.

Educational Connectors
Educational connectors attend conferences and collaborate with educators from all content areas and levels.  Educational connectors know that their professional knowledge depends on their willingness to share ideas with others.  They spend time spreading the word when they uncover exciting ideas.

Educational Mavens
Educational mavens see learning as a lifelong process.  They take personal responsibility for learning as much as they can about their profession.  They are both teacher and student because they recognize what they don’t know.  Educational mavens are voracious readers.  They wake up at night and write down ideas that come to them in their dreams.  You’ll know that you’ve met an educational maven because they exude passion when talking about anything that is related to teaching and learning.

Educational Salesmen
Connectors and mavens are often one and the same.  Salesmen are a different breed.  They have a knack for communicating ideas in ways that leave the average person in awe.  Educational salesmen are unique beings.  When I think of educational salesmen I think of Todd Whitaker, Annette Breaux, Dave Burgess, Eric Jensen, Michael Fullan, Daniel Pink, Peter DeWitt, Adam Saenz, Freeman Hrabowski, Chris Lehman, and Kate Roberts.  They are just a few of the educational salesmen who always leave you wanting more.  They contribute to their profession by “selling” you on the value of what they are truly passionate about.

Imagine what would happen if each of us resolved to being educational connectors, mavens, and salesmen.  Are we so caught up in the day to day management of our positions that we are unable to contribute to the greater good of our chosen profession?  School leaders often remind their teachers that they can’t work in isolation.  That’s advice they need to internalize.  The principalship can be a lonely position.  Principals who see themselves as connectors, mavens, and salesmen increase their individual potential.  That can only be a good thing for their schools and their students.

Common Core Causes the Flu

Okay, the Common Core doesn’t really cause the flu, but it seems to be making a lot people sick anyway.  What the Common Core really has is a major public relations problem.  If you follow any of the major or local newspapers you have likely read some of these headlines:

NY Times
“At Forums, New York State Education Commissioner Faces a Barrage of Complaints”
“Caution and the Common Core”
“A Tough New Test Spurs Protest and Tears”
“Who’s Minding the Schools?”

Washington Post
“More states delay Common Core testing as concerns grow”
“Following Common Core money: Where are millions of dollars going?”

Dallas News
“Common Core critics see examples of agenda in class assignments”

Baltimore Sun
“Marylanders Protest Common Core”

Leesville Daily Leader
“Parents, students speak out against Common Core Standards”

It doesn’t help when Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, puts his foot in his mouth and offends mothers across the U.S.  The hysteria surrounding the Common Core is exasperating, especially if you’re an elementary principal who is already knee-deep in rolling out the standards.  As a veteran educator, I am worried that the polarized discussions on the Common Core are clouding the issues.

Teaching continues all across the United States every day.  The debate and gnashing of teeth over the CCSS hasn’t stopped teachers from doing their jobs and it certainly isn’t keeping students from learning.  So what’s all the fuss then?  The fuss is really all about testing, not teaching or learning.  While there has been, and will continue to be, discussion on the content of the standards, most of the heated discussions going on now are about testing.

I am hopeful that parents, teachers, and politicians can separate their concerns enough to realize that, right now, it really is about testing.  Demonizing the standards is just a way to muddy the conversation.  Now, if you agree that testing is the real problem with the CCSS, then there is an easy solution to that…stop testing.

Is that too radical?  I don’t think so.  I don’t consider myself an educational radical.  I’m just a simple principal who thinks teachers and students deserve more time to figure out the CCSS before they’re held accountable for them.  Imagine how quickly that solution would reduce the stress being placed on students and teachers.  The headline I am waiting to read is:  “CCSS Testing Moratorium Announced Until 2016.”  That would give states the time they need to train teachers and prepare students.

Sustaining the Principalship Via Shared Practices VII

Part VII (of VII)

Final Thoughts on Shared Leadership

The final of the five practices that principals can use to grow leadership in their buildings is authentic collaboration.

V. Provide Authentic Opportunities for Collaboration

Nothing builds the shared leadership capacity of teachers quicker than authentic opportunities for collaboration.  The collaboration must be focused on real issues within the schoolhouse walls.  Whether through study groups, action research, or pedagogical trial and error, collaboration brings the creative process to life.

Teachers are eager to be viewed as part of the solution to student performance concerns.  Principals need to show faith in their teachers and give them the chance to solve instructional questions related to student achievement.  A belief in the collective intelligence of teachers nurtures a sense of shared responsibility for school achievement.

While principals must respond to federal, state, and local educational initiatives, they should collaboratively utilize teachers to introduce and interpret these changes.  The days of district-centered staff development are gone.  When teachers are relied on to lead staff development in their schools, their role as professionals is reaffirmed.

Shared leadership fosters a proactive value system that keeps teachers from feeling that educational reform is something that happens to them.  Rather than being reactive to new changes, they begin to anticipate and prepare for the change.  This makes them much more capable than teachers who operate as free agents with no connection to their peers.

Leadership Can Be Shared

Principals tend to report that they are strong proponents of shared leadership.  The question is, are they strong practitioners?  When beliefs and practices converge, the possibilities for schools are endless.  The only risk with shared leadership is that teachers will become empowered and pass those feelings on to their students.

Imagine a school full of adults and students who recognize, value, and utilize their strengths every day.  Principals who share leadership are not ceding power, if they ever had it.  Adopting shared leadership practices instantly makes a principal smarter.  With all of the challenges facing school leaders today, being a little smarter could make a big difference.

Sustaining the Principalship Via Shared Practices VI

Part VI (of VII)

III. Know Your Teachers’ Strengths

Effective shared leadership begins with knowing your staff.  Principals must take the time to uncover the strengths of each person who works with children in their building.  This takes time, but it is time well spent.  Principals who uncover the strengths of teachers can use those strengths to enhance their school while building overall teacher capacity.

Goals conferences, pre and post observation conferences, and end of year evaluation conferences are great opportunities to learn about the skill sets teachers possess.  Attending social functions, grade level meetings, and informal sessions with the staff provides principals with the chance to learn of the interests and abilities of their teachers.

IV. Include Teachers in Decision-making

Involvement in the decision-making process greatly impacts teacher efficacy.  Teachers do not expect, nor do they want to be involved in every decision.  They do, however, want to be involved in decisions related to the how, what, and when of teaching.  Principals can include teachers when developing schedules and targeting instructional strategies.  In the age of state and federal standards, teachers should still be empowered to develop curricula to address the specific needs of their students.

One of the quickest ways to build a culture of shared leadership is to include teachers in the hiring of new employees.  When teachers help select new staff members it reinforces the collective responsibility of teaching.  How impressive is it to new teacher candidates if they are selected by their peers?  Teachers who select their new teammates are instantly invested in their success.  Opportunities for including teachers in school-based decisions are only limited by the imagination and creativity of the principal.

Sustaining the Principalship Via Shared Practices V

Part V (of VII)

Making Shared Leadership Work

So if we know what shared leadership is and we know how it enhances schools, how do we “do” shared leadership?  How do we make it work for our schools?  This is where it gets complex.  There are no pat formulas for making shared leadership work.  The approach school leaders need to take is similar to the one teachers take every year with differentiation in their classrooms.  The characteristics and strengths of a school determine the approach that will make shared leadership a success.  There are, however, five general practices that principals can begin using today to grow the leadership in their buildings.

I.  Establish a Culture of Shared Leadership

The starting point for successful shared leadership begins, ironically, with the singular principal making a commitment to utilizing its dynamic nature.  Any long-term success is unlikely without the principal’s genuine interest in sharing leadership.  Principals must voice their plan to utilize shared practices.  It is not enough to hold the belief, you have to make it part of an ongoing discourse.  If shared leadership is to become part of the school culture it must become a common language throughout all practices in the school.

II.  Include Everyone

Principals must possess the belief that each and every staff member truly has something to offer.  This requires an unfailing belief in teachers.  Nothing will harm the efforts toward sharing leadership quicker than selective shared leadership.  Teachers who are not included in the decision-making process cannot be part of the solution.  Choosing favorites to carry out leadership roles undermines both the teachers who are selected and the ones left on the sidelines.

This means that principals will have to put their faith in teachers not normally seen as leaders.  The risks are worth it, however, because you can never have too many leaders.  Is it possible that teachers who have never aspired to leadership could surprise a skeptical principal with their unknown talents?  The answer is an unequivocal yes and that is what makes shared leadership so energizing.

Sustaining the Principalship Via Shared Practices IV

Part IV (of VII)

The use of shared leadership practices empowers teachers and raises student achievement.

Empowerment

Empowerment is a constructive byproduct of shared leadership.  Dee, Henkin, and Duemer (2003) found that “empowered teachers with increased motivation, enhanced feelings of meaning, and strong organizational commitment are at the root of dynamic school progress.”  They supported the use of shared leadership as a collaborative structure through which educators and schools can reach their goals.

While comparing directive leadership with participative leadership, Somech (2005) found that shared practices enhance teacher performance through two motivational mechanisms: organizational commitment and teacher empowerment.  Somech’s study supported previous research that noted to improve teacher innovation, “they need to be recognized as experts in their fields, have input about what they do and how they do it, feel that they are engaged in meaningful work, and be respected by others.”  This further illustrates the dynamic nature of shared leadership and its effect on student achievement.

Student Achievement

The link between leadership and student achievement has been explored in several noteworthy studies.  In 2003, Waters, Marzano, and McNulty conducted a meta-analysis that examined the effects of leadership on student achievement.  They found significant correlations between leadership and student achievement.  Specifically, they found correlations among many factors that are associated with shared leadership including:  culture, communication, affirmation, relationships, and intellectual stimulation.

Lambert conducted a study on high leadership capacity schools in 2006 and discovered that challenging schools made tremendous improvements through shared leadership and a professional culture.  In many cases, this allowed them to remove the “low-performing” designation assigned to their schools.  The schools in their study, “stopped at nothing to improve student learning.”  Approaches to problem solving revealed a strong sense of collective responsibility in the schools.  The principals led from the center or side with an emphasis on facilitating and co-participating rather than on dominance.

In 2010, Seashore Louis et. al. found a positive link between educational leaders and student learning outcomes.  They found that student achievement is higher in schools where principals share leadership with teachers and the community. The study, funded by the Wallace Foundation, provides some of the most compelling evidence related to shared leadership and student achievement.  The researchers examined collective, shared, and distributed leadership effects on teachers, students, and principals.  Their findings suggest that when leadership is used as a shared property by parents, teachers, principals, and staff members, students achieve at higher levels.

Sustaining the Principalship Via Shared Practices III

Part III (of VII)

Principals who utilize shared leadership practices enhance vision and trust.

Vision

Shared leadership and the development of a living and meaningful vision are closely linked.  Skillful leaders focus their attention on the key aspects of a school’s vision and work to communicate that vision clearly (Leithwood & Riehl, 2003).  They emphasize new possibilities and promote a compelling vision of the future due to their own strong sense of purpose (Tucker & Russell, 2004).

Traditional views of leadership are based on an assumption of powerlessness, which diminishes the potential of vision.  In organizations truly dedicated to learning, vision is cooperatively developed with all stakeholders (Leech & Fulton, 2008).  With shared leadership, no one is asked to sacrifice his or her personal interests to the team; rather “the shared vision becomes an extension of each individual’s personal vision” (Senge, 1990).

Trust

The concept and application of trust is central to shared leadership.  When principals share leadership, they raise trust levels throughout their community.  Daly and Chrispeels (2005) explored trust and efficacy in relation to moving schools from deficit orientations to strengths-based approaches.  They noted that trust “can ameliorate organizational stress.”  They added that trust alone is not enough, “individual and collective beliefs of efficacy are also necessary strengths-based components for building school capacity.”  They identified trust, efficacy, and positive psychology as essential in developing positive organizations.

The relationship between trust and shared leadership is reciprocal, which makes it difficult to isolate within the context of shared leadership.  In 2008, Slater studied how principals use communication strategies to foster the empowerment of stakeholders within the context of collaborative initiatives.  The researcher noted that traditional hierarchical approaches to leadership are “less likely to involve shared leadership norms that promote collaboration and resultantly enhance trust.”

Sustaining the Principalship Via Shared Practices II

Part II (of VII)

Why Shared Leadership?  

What is it about a shared leadership model that makes it appealing to administrators, teachers, and school communities? If school leaders commit to using the strengths of their staffs to guide site-based decisions, how will their schools benefit?  There is increasing evidence that shared leadership impacts many aspects of school culture and student performance.  Six specific effects seem to be markedly enhanced through the use of shared leadership practices.  The first two are communication and collaboration.

Communication

The importance of developing relationships is a common theme for schools seeking to improve the academic achievement of all students.  Nevarez and Wood (2007) found that schools rich in respect and a sense of community promote solid relationships and communication.  They argued that urban school leaders can change school conditions by developing proficient and culturally competent teachers and administrators.  Additionally, they noted that communication is enhanced through “positive school culture, inter-organizational confidence, and respect” (p. 274).  These attributes are closely aligned with, and enriched by, shared leadership practices.

Collaboration

Shared leadership practices lead to collaboration and collegiality among staff members.  In 2009, DuFour and Marzano identified high-leverage strategies for principals that clearly established the need to create structures to ensure that collaborative time for teachers focuses on issues and questions directly related to student learning.  DuFour and Marzano share a vision for school leadership that celebrates the collaborative team process.  They encourage principals to “spend less time supervising and more time working collaboratively with teams to examine student learning and help more students achieve at higher levels” (p. 68).

Marks and Printy (2003) also viewed the principal as key in sharing leadership and promoting active collaboration.  They investigated the connection between school leadership and student performance, as well as the potential for active collaboration around instructional matters to enhance the quality of teaching and student performance.  They found that active collaboration around instruction and assessment leads to significant school improvement.