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Promises Worth Keeping

Publication Date: 2007-11-06

Opening Speech at the Leadership for Classroom Assessment conference, October 17th. It was a conference about Leadership in Classroom Assessment. . . a day and a half about the promise and practice of classroom-based assessment.

Doug Christensen's passion will take your breath away.


In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer writes about the seasons as metaphors for life. His words about autumn seem appropriate.

He talks of autumn as a time of great beauty. And, it is. Along our Missouri River, just outside our hotel windows, along the Platte River that winds through our state from border to border, and along the beautiful Niobrara River Valley in the Sandhills . . . are just some of the places where nature paints the beauty of this changing season.

While Palmer talks of autumn as a time of great beauty, he also notes that autumn is a season of decline. The days grow shorter, the light is more diffused, and the abundance of summer slows toward the time that is winter.

He raises a question which I have not thought much about. âFaced with the inevitable winter, what does nature do in autumn? The obvious to me seems ânot much.â My mind tends to see the obvious . . . the browning of the green growth of summer and the inevitable and initial stages of natureâs dormancy and decline.

However, if one looks close enough and beyond the obvious, nature does a lot. It scatters seeds that will bring new growth and âscatters them with amazing abandon.â Those are Palmerâs words, not mine. With his words, my mind begins to think differently. âHow often have I not been aware of the seeds being planted even though I have engaged in the activity myself?â Farmers do this all the time. Gardeners do this all the time.

I love the fall colors and delight in seeing them. There is a place where the âfeelingâ of autumn is especially deep for me. When I have been in the Sandhills along the Niobrara River Valley in the fall, it is so hard to leave. A kind of melancholy and sadness washes over me. I feel a quiet and subtle message that says âdonât go.â I feel a sense of loss and a feeling of nostalgia that comes too soon. I donât want to âlet go.â

âMaybe I wonât be coming backâ is a thought I have had more than once. It has taken some time, but I now understand the message that I feel and it is not that I wonât be coming back. The message is that when I do come back, I wonât be the same as this time. The colors will not be exactly the same. The light not exactly the same. And, I will not be exactly the same. Next time we will meet each other in a different way than we are doing so at this moment.

This story and the words of Parker Palmer may seem a little strange for this conference and for this opening address. Iâll try to make it make some sense. I think there is a powerful metaphor and a lesson or two for all of us. At least it speaks to me. Iâd like to put words to my thoughts and share them with you tonight.

Lesson number one is that it is easy to fixate on the surface stuff, the obvious . . . and ignore what is happening âunderneathâ and what new opportunities are ready to take root and grow. Although, when I apply this metaphor to our football team, I am not sure there is anything else but the obvious. However, I have to believe that there is something more.

Lesson number two involves seeing that life almost always is offered in paradoxes and embedded opposites. In the autumn, the obvious and surface things speak of change, decline, decay, and loss. Yet, if we look deeply and try to understand what nature is actually doing, with each autumn, there are a myriad of possibilities being planted which will bear fruit in their time and in the seasons to come.

The third lesson is that this metaphor speaks to my life and I presume it does to yours, as well. Maybe it does not speak to you in exactly the same way, but Iâll bet it speaks to all of you if we will just listen.

This metaphor helps me see that in my own life there have been lost opportunities, things I did not do, roads closed to where I wanted to go and things that did not turn out as I had hoped. I have experienced times where it seemed like everywhere I would turn, life was changing in ways I did not want and at times it seemed my life was narrowing, winding down and lessening.

I am not talking about growing old here. I have dismissed that possibility a long time ago. I simply refuse!

But silently and sometimes lavishly, just as in nature, seeds for the new are being sown. In every decline there is a new opportunity. In every road that is closed another way can be found; a new road built.

I used to see these as opposites and Palmerâs metaphor helped me see that they are not opposites at all. They may seem like opposites, but they are actually parts of the same whole. Thomas Merton agrees. âThere is in all visible things . . . a hidden wholeness.â

I am sorry it took me so long to get to this point but here is lesson number four. LB653 did not turn out like I had hoped it would. I assume that most of you agree. A door was closed. A road, the road of STARS, was posted âunder construction.â

Based on this metaphor of autumn, what are the possibilities now? I do not believe that the possibilities have been narrowed. I believe we can rebuild this road and improve it; and, maybe open a new and better road. What I had thought was autumn--the end, the decay of what we have invested so much in to build--is really a time to plant and time to prepare for the coming spring, and a time to begin the design of another passage.

A new opportunity . . . another chance . . . life is clearly not over. This story is not finished. The final chapter has yet to be written.

We have some thinking to do and choices to consider: âFirst, will we write this chapter or let it be written for us? Then, are there other roads we could take? What new opportunities can we create? And what new roads do we need to build?â

Thank you Fred

1. For the introduction and very kind words
2. Thanks, too, for your leadership on the State Board of Education
3. Thank you for our friendship. I value that most of all.
4. One of the great things that I get to do is work with a dedicated State Board of Education

* They are willing to put in the time
* They study the issues carefully
* They deliberate deeply on the matters that matter most.
* Let me publicly say thank you to all of our State Board members for their work, their leadership and their support.

âWelcomeâ to all of you. This conference is so important to our work in this state. I want to make sure you feel you all have our special welcome. Special welcome, too, to our guests from outside of Nebraska. And special welcome to state policy leaders and to our association partners.

Thank you all for attending this conference; for participating in the celebration of our work here in Nebraska; and for helping us spread the word and continue this important conversation about the power of classroom-based assessments.

And, I need to thank all of you for your advocacy of this work; your leadership and work in the service of teaching and learning; and for your work on behalf of our students.

My opening story was about the âseasons,â . . . the âtimes.â âThese are the times,â as Thomas Paine stated, âthat try menâs (and womenâs) souls.â These are the times of the Chinese proverb that cursed us with the admonition âmay you live in interesting times.â Did you know that the term âinterestingâ is thought to be a synonym for âturbulentâ or âdangerous?â And, these are the times that feel like everything is a test . . . testing . . . testing . . . testing!

Keeping to our metaphor about autumn, these are the times for planting. These are the times for preparing. These are the times that what we do today will matter tomorrow. What we plant today and over these next few months will determine what our work will look like tomorrow.

Martina McBride sings a song that reminds me of some dimensions of leadership I find very important. I believe it speaks to what leaders must do especially when autumn comes.

âYou can spend your whole life buildinâ something from nothing and one storm can come and blow it all away. Build it anyway.


You can chase a dream that seems out of reach and you know it may never come your way. Dream it anyway.

This worlds gone crazy and itâs hard to believe that tomorrow will be better than today. Believe it anyway.

You can pour your soul out singin' a song you believe in and that tomorrow theyâll forget you ever sang. Sing it anyway.


Another song that reminds of what to do and believe in is a song by Emerson Drive about a man âUnder the E Street Bridge.â The refrain of the song is âIâve had my moments . . . days in the sun . . . I was second to none . . . moments when I knew I did what I thought I could not do . . .â

This time is an important time. I believe this is âour moment.â We have dreamed, built and believed. This moment, I believe, is . . . our day in the sun . . . we are doing what no one else is doing and most wish they could . . . We have done what few thought we could do.

So here we are . . . autumn . . . and changes. A season to plant and a time to get ready. And, here we are needing to . . . continue to dream . . . continue to build . . . continue to âsing our songâ. . .

Leadership in Classroom Assessment is what this conference is about. My part this evening is to set the stage for a great conversation over the next day and a half about the promise and practice of classroom-based assessment. Tonight I will kick off our engagement by addressing the leadership part.

I do not think that we can get where we want to go with old notions of leadership. I believe these times and these days call for something new. And, if these times donât call for something new, then surely this time calls for us to rethink and reframe what we know about leadership and how we practice it in our various roles and how to practice it in these âinteresting and tryingâ times.

It is time to lead! What kind of leaders do we need? What does this new or reframed leadership look like?

I believe there are six key constructs to the practice of leadership that we need to know and understand in order to lead. First, leadership is about what leaders do. One of the most important things leaders do is build visions. The operative word is âbuild,â not âgiveâ or âpresent.â âBuild!â Most leaders invite others to the vision-building process. And, once built, most leaders keep engaging people in the vision in new and compelling ways.

The building of a vision as a role for leadership was never more clear than in the life of Abraham Lincoln. By the time Lincoln took the presidential oath of office in 1861, seven states had seceded from the Union, nearly one-half the U.S. Congress had left Washington, the South had taken control of federal assets within its borders including the forts and arsenals, and Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as president of the Confederate States of America.

Because of the imminent dissolution of the Union, people in the northern states were wondering about the original vision of âthe united states.â Had the U.S. Constitution, in fact, been ripped apart? Was the original vision of the founding fathersâ"âto form a more perfect unionââ"no longer relevant? If they listened to James Buchanon, the outgoing President, the American dream was essentially over. âI am the last president of the United States,â he proclaimed. He was willing to turn the lights out on this union as he left town.

What did Lincoln do? He was faced with disavowal or threatened disavowal of the union by almost half of the country. But, Lincoln did the opposite of Buchanon. He held that the Constitution was still in force until it was actually replaced. He reminded any and everyone that the Constitution included a grand vision of a âunionâ which was still the promise and the practice of this new United States and he vowed it âwould not fail.â

Lincoln did as the leader of any organization or group would do when faced with a crisis. He looked at the mobilizing vision and reaffirmed it. He kept the vision alive that spoke to the hearts of Americans. He focused on the legacy to be handed off to the children of this great and free nation, the next generation.

Lincoln would speak often of the vision of . . . a more perfect union . . . where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were unalienable rights . . . and where these rights belonged to us all.

âThis is worth fighting forâ he would come to say over and over again.

Second, leadership is about passion . . . passion with a purpose . . . and passion that connects purpose to practice.

We have invested our time, energy and expertise to create something that others envy. We have created something that lies at the heart and soul of teaching and learning. We have built a vision of leadership for teachers, administrators and board members at the local levels to engage in the practice of continuous school improvement. We have built a system of accountability from the ground up and from the classroom up. And this accountability represents true accountability and places the responsibility and capacity to change teaching and learning where it belongs. It places the responsibility and capacity in the hands of those who work in the schools and those who work on behalf of schoolsâ"teachers, administrators and other educators, and board members.

We are threatened with its dissolution by something onerous and misguided. State testing is not a model based on good practice. It is not a model based on research and evidence. It is not a model based on data about its positive effects on teachers and students.

State testing is what it is. State testing has no support. It is truly an âemperor with no clothes.â No data, no evidence, and no research. It is not an open road. If it is an open road, it should be closed.

Those who advocate for external state testing tout the need for innovation and improvement. Their rhetoric is that somehow testing is the tool for quality assurance and for finding who is doing âitâ best. This external testing model is a model of standardization. Standardize everythingâ"the standards, the curriculum, the instruction, the teachers, the schools, . . . like fast food chains where customers are generally guaranteed, no matter the location, what they will receive.


There is another road to travel. In the case of restaurants, there is something called the Michelin Guide which articulates the criteria for excellence on which restaurants will be assessed, but which allows each restaurant to determine how best to meet them.

Third, leadership is about adaptive work Ron Heifitz coined the term âadaptive work.â He lays out the concept and practice of adaptive work in his book, Leadership Without Easy Answers. In his book, he defines two kinds of issues or problems. Those that are technical and those that are adaptive. Those that are technical in nature have solutions that already exist in the âmarket place.â Solving technical problems is a matter of going out and finding the solution that will solve the problem. Technical problems do not require a committee. They do not require any special design work. Simply, find the solution that fits and put it in place.

On the other hand, there are other kinds of issues or problems that are not technical. These are the ones that are not clearly defined and may not be defined at all. These are called âadaptiveâ issues or problems.

In adaptive work, the first step is to define the problem and doing so takes multiple minds, multiple resources and lots of time. It requires engagement and discovery. The solution to these kinds of issues or problems do not exist and must be created or âadaptedâ and hence the term, âadaptive.â

Adaptive leadership is based on three notions. One, the really important problems or issues for an organization or enterprise are almost always adaptive and rarely are they ever technical. Two, adaptive leadership is the ability to move people out of their zone of confidence into a zone of discovery in order to fully understand the challenge and to create solutions to meet the challenge. And three, leaders in adaptive work have to have the stomach, a/k/a the courage, to be able to stand the inevitable conflict and disturbance such work creates.

Standards, assessment and accountability in most states has been practiced as a technical issue. Find a test. Make a test. Put it in place. Job done! LB653 turns standards, assessment and accountability into a technical issue and technical strategy. STARS is about adaptive leadership.

Fourth, leadership is about sharing and distributing the leading.

The old model of leadership is top down and begins with the highest levels. In the old model, âauthorityâ to lead cascades downward through the organization with each level âtakingâ the amount it feels it is due. In this model there is a fixed leadership role confirmed by title and place in the organization. And, in this model there is a limited amount of leadership to be given with those at highest levels taking their amount first.

In the case of education leadership, the traditional hierarchy places students, teachers and principals at the bottom with little, if any, leadership left by the time it cascades downward from the top. These are the models that LB 653 and NCLB will freeze in place. LB 653 and NCLB, both will freeze in place the hierarchy that puts local educators at the bottom.

In the model of STARS, leadership is distributed throughout the system. All roles are determined from the center of the organization outward. There is no top or bottom. Each role is a complement to the role it surrounds.

The question that should be asked is âwhy is our state now pursuing state testing?â I believe it is about control and about controlling who leads. Is the leadership to be the State Board, the Commissioner, the educators . . . who? Or is it to be the Legislature, the Governor, the Chambers of Commerce, the foundation . . . who?

I believe that leadership within the education community and especially leadership by teachers and administrators scares many and threatens quite a few. I believe there are many well-meaning patrons who want to have something to say about education. We should welcome them.

We should be partners with all of government and do this work together. We should collaborate with our professional associations and do this work together. Unfortunately, there are some who wonât come to the table without control of the agenda and the decisions to be made.

There are those who would steal our profession and its practice from us. I believe they are afraid of a profession that leads from the inside. I believe they fear what we bring to the conversation. And, we bring a lot to the conversation. When we come to the table as educators, we bring things that others often canât handle. We bring the deep hearts like those of our mothers; the passion like that of a champion athlete, the relentlessness like that of the mountain climber; and the spirit like that of the artist. And, we bring the most important and precious piece of all to the table, the voices for our children . . . our teaching . . . their learning.

Fifth, leadership is about character, strength of heart and enduring vision. I believe this means courage, character, strength of heart and enduring vision are the essential ingredients of courage.

I believe there are those that would steal our hearts if they could. They must know it is from our hearts that our courage comes.

Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is the character, the strength of heart and the enduring vision that makes one able to move forward in spite of their fear. Courage is the character, strength of heart and enduring vision to do the right things in spite of who is opposed.

Courage is not innate. It is learned. We learn courage by our experiences that teach us who and what we are.

Courage to be who you were meant to be is the deepest of courage at its highest levels. This kind of courage comes softly and comes when we stop the noise and listen to the voice that tells us who we are, what holds the passion for our hearts, and reminds us of what is this work we were put on earth to do.

Courage means âmake it better.â Courage means build a new road if you have to. Courage means dreaming it, believing it, and building it.

Sixth, leadership is about âyour voice.â Your voice also comes from your heart. It is in your heart where passion meets purpose, where vision meets value, and where principle meets practice. This is the source of our strength and our voice.

This is our moment! Like the man under the âE Street Bridge,â this is our moment . . . our day in the sun. Our time to do what others think we cannot do.

It may get darker before the light shines. Before our light shines.

This is our moment to be the change we want for our students, to make the difference we talk about, and to be who we are and what we are as educators.

My message in this autumn and for the coming spring or any season thereafter is the same message I hold for myself. âNo one steals my heart. No one walks in my house with their dirty feet. No one ever, ever, ever, ever, silences my voice.â

Almost 7 years ago, we made a promise. We made a promise to be accountable not be held accountable. We made a promise to stand up for teaching all children and leaving no child behind. We made a promise that this work would be led from the local level and from classrooms. We promised that the design and practice of our work would come from the energy, creativity and knowledge of our educators. We made the promise that we would make standards, assessment and accountability through STARS our job, our work, . . . our place. We promised our students our best instruction and that it would not be defined by the limits of what could be tested.

We promised our educators a system of assessment that would give them the feedback they need, when they need it to ensure high levels of achievement for all students. We promised our public that classrooms would be the center of the schoolâs work and that teaching and learning would be the core of that work. And, we promised that students would be the center of all that we do.

We promised everyone that our work would be borne of vision and passion and that the various roles to be played would be roles of leadership from the classroom to the boardroom and from the school house to the statehouse.

These are promises worth keeping . . . this is our moment!


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