Personalized Learning in Lindsay Unified


I’m not sure when I first heard about Lindsay Unified School District.  Their work to shift towards personalized learning is often cited in broad reform conversations.  Sometimes, the work in Lindsay gets reduced by media to the “system that got rid of grades.”  Not exactly.

Today I finally got to visit Lindsay for myself.

There are a lot of things you could focus on when you come to Lindsay.  Some are of the shiny and exciting variety.  Open classrooms, proprietary learning software accessible across devices, and a just-published book by the Marzano Research Institute.  As impressive as those features may be, what catches my attention are those foundational shifts that are harder to see.  Here are three that struck me as essential.

Strategic Vision & Leadership Tenure

No big surprises here – Lindsay has had stable leadership at the superintendent level for a decade.  That’s a characteristic of high performing districts that has been well documented, and it’s certainly the case in Lindsay.  Furthermore, most of the leaders I spoke with, from district personnel to site leadership, were developed within the Lindsay system.

It was very clear that the starting point for Lindsay a decade ago was developing shared core values, guiding principals for learning, and clarity around the graduate profile.  Those founding documents are often the first things that go out the window when there are disruptions in leadership.  The stability of top leadership has allowed the vocabulary of the vision and corresponding strategic documents to seep deep into the professional culture.  Nobody in Lindsay talks about students or teachers.  They refer to learners and learning facilitators.  The six word mission statement – “empowering and motivating for today and tomorrow” – has been a guiding statement for over a decade.

As one teacher we talked to more bluntly put it.  “Lindsay is stubborn.  Our board and superintendent are stubborn.  Unlike every other system I’ve worked in, they developed a vision and keep at it.  You can’t escape it.  If you don’t like it, you leave, because it isn’t going away.  And I believe in it.”

Aligned Curriculum System

In terms of teaching and learning, Lindsay has shifted to a truly transparent, standards-based curriculum.  That’s easily the feature of the Lindsay story that was most impressive to me – because as a teacher and administrator myself, I know how hard that work is.  Really hard.

Each class is defined by a set of learning targets, pegged directly to the standards, that outlines the learning that is expected.  It has taken Lindsay Unified several years to outline the evidence that they want to see in order to certify that students have demonstrated mastery or proficiency of those targets.  I’ve rarely walked into a high school where every course has a clear standards-aligned syllabus that was accessible to students.  At best, these types of planning documents exist behind the scenes as teacher artifacts that don’t carry real meaning to students.  At worst, there is no deliberate connection between the standards and what happens in the classroom.  If Lindsay Unified had done nothing beyond ensuring a high-quality, standards-aligned curriculum across their 4,000 student system, it would be considered a success.

You really can’t talk about shifting ownership of learning to students when it isn’t clear where the path goes and what success looks like.  And the details matter.  I refer to those details as the three pillars of competency-based learning: standards-aligned targets, high quality assessments, and accessible content.  I think Lindsay has the targets and assessments to a high degree, and they are constantly trying to build their capacity to discover and design the content.

Systemic Willingness to Learn

There is a fine balance to walk between stubborn adherence to core values and guiding principals, and stubborn unwillingness to change course when the data and lived experience suggest something isn’t working.

I heard some interesting quotes over the course of our visit.

“Those were some painful years.”

“We found that out the hard way.”

“It’s tough because a lot gets asked of us.”

Those are statements that reflect the reality of a learning organization.  You are constantly leaning into the unknown.

Richard Elmore uses the sentence frame – “I used to think, but now I think…” to give space to the hard fought learning and insight that comes despite our original assumptions.  I heard several examples of this during my visit to Lindsay.  Both teachers and administrators referred to the original mantra “every student learns at their own pace.”  The vision was oriented towards individual students progressing independently.   You might have students all over the map in terms of their progress.  That’s certainly the image that pops in my mind when I think of true competency-based learning.

Interestingly, Lindsay has adjusted their mantra.  Now they say, “teacher pace or faster.”  An acknowledgement that teachers can offer needed structure and accountability to move students forward, especially for those students who haven’t yet developed the motivation or executive functioning to actively monitor their progress.  “Teacher pace or faster” may not be as attractive a slogan as “every student at their own pace,” but it’s a design principle that has emerged from real system learning.

Dissent & Control


I stole that title from a truly phenomenal high school social studies teacher.  On the books, Ben taught AP Government.  But we all know that wasn’t exactly what was going on in his classroom. Dissent & Control was the title of the senior research project in Ben’s class.  The essential question was how we balance, as a country, the need to control opinions & behaviors with the right to dissent, protest, and disagree.

Managing Ben, quite frankly, could be tough.  He has the heart of an activist.  During the Occupy Movement, he sometimes spent his afternoons and evenings across the Bay at the encampment in downtown Oakland.  I didn’t ask too many questions, just encouraged him to make sure he was available and present for his students – which he always was.  But often when we proposed changes, Ben voiced concerns.  On our Instructional Leadership Team, sometimes Ben was the lone vote for dissent.

Ben didn’t believe the AP curriculum was adequate.  When our charter management organization entered into a grant agreement to boost AP scores using a common curriculum, it created tension.  As a small charter management organization, our principal team was usually at the table when binding decisions on curriculum were made.  Some members of the team expressed concern that I would allow a hold-out.  I myself had moments of doubt – wondering whether it would be in the best interest of the school and students to either force a strict adherence to the AP curriculum or move him from teaching seniors.

Yet, in many ways, Ben was one of the most essential members of our faculty.  If we truly aspire to teach critical thinking as a habit of mind, then Ben represented the best of what is possible.  He taught kids to question, inquire, push for clarification, and then probe even deeper.  He equipped students with a set of analytical skills and tools that would serve them throughout their lives.  That’s not just my interpretation of Ben’s impact – it’s all the things I heard students say about their experiences in his classroom.

As a teacher leader, Ben invited us to see another perspective, consider alternative explanations, and to never forget that social justice is how we live our lives and not just our curriculum. Over time, I would sometimes play out different scenarios in my mind in anticipation of how I might respond when Ben voiced his dissent.  It was an intellectual practice that continually strengthened my own decision-making process.

As administrators, we make decisions on a regular basis that balance individual student needs with the health of a school community or larger organization.  We weigh the financial health of a public institution with the needs of our students – needs that always outpace our ability to address them.  I wonder if I’m not being vocal enough when decisions are made that I perceive as harmful or unfair.  At other times, I wonder if we are ceding too much decision-making to the data – as if numbers bore the whole truth or didn’t play favorites.

I often find myself walking that delicate balance between dissent and control in my own personal political life.  I’m feeling a pull towards dissent that I really have never experienced as acutely as I am experiencing now.  Some mornings I wake up feeling like I will have let my family, community, and country down if I don’t do something or say something.  I know I need to speak out – but I also wonder how much noise to make.

I’m sure Ben wondered too.  I know there were plenty of moments when he felt a surge of genuine concern or anger about a decision that was being made.  He wasn’t afraid to vocalize his perspective.  I’m sure Ben probably felt, at times, that his job might be on the line.  And quite frankly, he would have been right.  But to his credit, and I hope to mine, we persisted together.

In the end, I think it made both of us better.

Busy-ness Peddling


How do you respond when someone asks how you are doing?

“Things are a little crazy, but I’m doing well.”

“I’m doing fine, just really busy.”

“Good, although I’ve got back to back meetings this morning.”

I’ll speak for myself when I say that there are countless temptations every day to refer to my level of “busy-ness.”  Markers of “busy-ness” show up in our choice of vocabulary and topics of conversation.  Both in our professional and personal lives, “busy” can become shorthand for how we talk to each other.

“Man, life is busy” could be innocuous small talk.  Just a friendly way to build on common experiences with the people we interact with each day.  But sometimes I’m suspicious that the constant talk of more to do then we have time to do it reveals something deeper.  I’m not a psychologist, but I wonder if it has to have something to do with an emotional need to present our contribution as valuable, or perhaps to remind people that we’re pulling our weight.  In a highly regulated labor environment like public schools and classrooms, we associate value with time worked and not necessarily with outcomes achieved.  It’s baked into our contracts and our professional culture.  In Santa Ana, we even share a funny line about how employment is measured in dog years – every year in Santa Ana is the equivalent of 7 years somewhere else.

It could be that we happen to work in an profession and environment as teachers and educators where we feel starved for the public recognition and financial support that our work deserves.  In other words, our individual need to prove our worth is a miniature version of our collective need to prove that education is a real profession on par with other professional fields.  It could be that the expectations for what an educator should be responsible to accomplish – singlehandedly overcoming the impacts of intergenerational poverty, systemic racism, or family disfunction, for example – are not entirely reasonable.

Even if some of that existential need to share how busy we are is the result of legitimate stresses of the work we do – I think expressing our busy-ness actually makes the situation worse.  The way we talk influences the way we think and feel about our work.    Our language seeps into and shapes our classroom, school, and organizational cultures.  And it doesn’t build empathy in the way we think and hope it does.  At best, it reinforces a sense that value is measured in hours worked and not on impact.  We start narratives about teachers who leave early or stay late, without much good data to inform us who, actually, is making a bigger difference in the classroom.  At worst, we’re perceived as whiners, setting us up collectively for the inevitable comparisons between other industries and professions and our relatively short working days or calendar years.

As a former high school principal and currently as a supervisor of principals, I know firsthand that running a school is a time-intensive endeavor.  I have a lot of empathy when a principal shares the extent of their busy-ness – and I don’t have to doubt their frustration that they simply can’t do it all.  At the same time, the ability to manage a resource as precious as your time is a marker of your leadership skill set.  Everyone is busy.  Everyone is overworked – and yet in that context some leaders move organizations much further than others.

So yes, I’m busy.  Life is crazy right now.  But it’s the work I chose and the work I love – and I have just as much time as anybody else.


Diffuse Accountability


The district where I work is big.  50,000 students big.  In fact, my motivation for coming to Santa Ana is tied to both a desire to have a broader impact on students and to learn how school improvement happens at scale.  The size of the organization defies linear cause and effect.  Yes, sometimes A does cause B, but often it splinters out and causes C, D, and E.

One of the most challenging adjustments has been getting my leadership optics right when it comes to accountability.  Let me explain.

In my previous role as a charter high school principal in a small 3-school system, accountability felt natural and organic – and it was typically tied to clarity about job roles and responsibilities.  For example, as the principal of the school, one of my primary job responsibilities was recruitment and enrollment.  Yes, I had support from our central office in the form of an enrollment coordinator, but it was always crystal clear that if enrollment dropped, I would be held accountable.  That accountability was rarely, if ever, my supervisor coming down hard on me.  It wasn’t a stern talking to.  It was much simpler than that.  If we lost enrollment, I had to let someone go.  If numbers sagged, we lost programs for kids.  If I failed or underperformed, I was the one having the hard conversations.

I worked my tail off to sustain a strong enrollment system.  Of course my primary strategy was to build a strong academic program that got results for kids.  But there was a lot more that had to happen.  I taught myself graphic design, I mapped out all of the recruitment events, I personally visited every middle school in San Francisco – with school logo emblazoned mugs filled with candy in hand.  We walked streets.  We filled phone banks. We strategized and agonized.

So it was with just about every task.  We were so small as an organization that I always felt vulnerable.  One misstep, one lawsuit, or one negative PR blowup could have tremendous consequences. Nobody had to remind me of this or reassert their authority.  Accountability was the context of the work.

In Santa Ana, there is still tremendous accountability.  In some very concrete ways, there are layers of public transparency that charter schools simply don’t have to meet.  There is clearly a different standard.

Yet while accountability still plays a substantial role in the governance of a large school district, it doesn’t always operate in natural or predictable ways.  For example, we’ve been experiencing year over year enrollment declines for virtually a decade in Santa Ana.  Yet even if we lose 1000 students in a year, that might only pan out to 10-20 fewer students per school.  As a teacher, I might only see one fewer student in my classroom.  I probably wouldn’t notice at all.

So for the teacher, and even the school site administrator, accountability isn’t experienced naturally.  The district office has to simulate the accountability.  We have to explain a phenomenon that site employees don’t necessary feel in their day to day work.  Even when a school loses enough enrollment to justify a reduction in staff, it sets in motion a complex set of negotiated terms that often means the person who ultimately loses their job probably doesn’t even work at the school in question.  When the reduction in force notice comes, it doesn’t come from the person responsible for enrollment, it comes from the Human Resources department.

That’s all to say, a big part of my learning curve has been making sense of the way districts operationalize accountability – compliance.  We work within a complex web of accountability regimes – board policies, ed code, administrative regulations, and negotiated contracts.  It creates a context that is ripe for tension and conflict – perhaps as any public institution is inevitably prone to experience.  A union invokes a grievance when action is out of line with the contract.  The legal system reinforces Ed Code.

For the rest of it, accountability shifts to the relationship between a supervisor and his or her direct reports.  But that’s a balancing act too. There is a real leadership puzzle in building motivation and morale and momentum  when I’m also responsible for invoking the controls of the system to ensure we are accountable to the public.

This has been a rocky shift for me.  We’re a public institution governed by an elected body that sets policy.  We need financial controls.  And yes, we need compliance.  But we also need energy and momentum and something inspiring to draw out the best in each of us.  I’m actively trying to find the sweet spot of leadership that successfully navigates the two.

From Resolution to Redesign


Some people love New Year as a holiday – the party, the food, the games.  I have five children 8 years old and under, so my house is always a party with food and games everywhere – a party I get to clean up every night.  Add an extra late bedtime and you have a recipe for emotional breakdown – and I’m not talking about the kids.

I’m a much bigger fan of starting a new year.  That sense of renewal, of new possibilities, of new adventures.  This year, I’ve noticed a lot more online chatter about the uselessness of resolutions or goal-setting.  There’s even some compelling research that suggests that New Year’s resolutions typically fizzle out.  The trend is away from self-discipline to self-acceptance.

I’m all for learning to love who we are – and we all know we’re often our own biggest critics.  But I also think it would be a shame to allow the New Year to roll forward without taking the time to reflect on where we’ve been and intentionally think and plan how the coming year might bring new possibilities.  This launch into the New Year is much more than just writing better goals or mustering more personal mastery.  It’s about taking the time to get some closure and intentionally set our future trajectory.

Set Aside Time for Reflection

My wife’s family started an interesting tradition just a year after we were married 15 years ago.  One of the gifts that we all give one another is a “year history.”  Each of us takes the time to write an overview of the past year.  Highs and lows.  Triumphs and failures.  There is always a healthy dose of laughter and tears.

Anyone in the family will tell you that writing the one-page history can be on the agonizing side.  We write, and revise, and then write some more and keep making the font smaller. Some histories tell stories, some list activities, and some find broad themes to summarize the year.

It’s a tremendously cathartic experience.  Possibly my favorite tradition.  In the end, the process lends incredible clarity to my intentions for the new year.  Having a deadline and an audience has been surprisingly helpful in pushing me to really invest in my reflective process.  But even if you are writing for an audience of one, taking time to reflect and write about the past year is an investment worth making.

Shifting Identities

We tend to use labels and absolutes when talking about ourselves – I’m a writer, I’m not a math person, I don’t cook.  There is a certain sense of finality about how we talk about ourselves.  In some cases, this approach to language reinforces what we like about ourselves.  It communicates our values and the communities we aspire to be a part of.  Often, however, our language closes doors and possibilities for ourselves.

The new year is a great time to play with our sense of identity.

Most people in my job with Santa Ana Unified think I’m a Facebook junkie and a cyclist.  A surprising percentage of my conversations at work start with someone asking me, “Did you ride your bike today?”

Truth be told, prior to moving from San Francisco, I was a reluctant social media user, and I had only recently experimented with occasional bike rides for exercise.  When I moved here, I decided that I wanted to try out some new “characteristics” that I associated with people I considered to be creative and innovative.  I bike to work almost daily.  I’m one of the heaviest users and posters to our district Facebook account.  Of course I had to move through all of the discomfort of being a novice, but over time I’ve learned a tremendous amount about social media and how to ride a bike to work in Santa Ana without dying.

Perhaps that seems shallow or inauthentic.  But for me, my desire to play with new characteristics or identities comes from a genuine curiosity about life and a insatiable desire to learn.  Sometimes I joke with my wife that I’d like to move to a horse ranch and become a cowboy.  Why not?

Find Your Mantra

There’s a reason Michael Pollan’s book “Eat Food, Mostly Plants, Not too Much” got so much traction in the wellness and diet world.  Simple Green Smoothies?  Same thing.  These concepts are simple.  We can digest them quickly.

I’ve spent a lot of time in university classrooms, and some of the most profound concepts that have stuck with me have been the most simple.  I still remember a long conversation about assessment and feedback and how difficult it can be to deliver critical feedback to others.  One of my classmates wrote in big letters on the board: “One Big Thing.”  The message was that people aren’t able to process that much feedback at once, especially if they perceive the feedback as negative.  In essence, you get to address one thing – the most important thing – so make it count.  That simple advice has served me incredibly well over the years in my work as an administrator.

Sometimes we need to switch our long lists and comprehensive plans for simple statements of intention.  We need a mantra.

At the beginning of each school year, my wife and I sit down to come up with a theme for the school year to continually reinforce with our kids.  Instead of outlining a bunch of things we want our kids to do and become, we just choose one.  This year is “Allen’s are Courageous.” That statement hangs near our dining table, and it informs lots of conversations throughout the year.  It’s a deliberate attempt to create a shared value that we hope then translates into desired changes.

With that said, I have to admit that my mantra for 2017 isn’t nearly as aspirational, although it is remarkably simple. I’m only communicating one goal to people around me – “finish my dissertation.”  If I can do that I’ll consider 2017 a success.  Wish me luck.

Strategy Game


About a week after I began my first year as a high school principal, I received an invitation to join a network of principals who met once a month at Stanford University to discuss leadership and delve into problems of practice we were facing at our schools.  Frankly, I was hesitant to join.  It was my first year as a principal and even with just a few days on the job, I could tell that being off campus could be a major leadership liability.  Everything I had heard from colleagues and other principals indicated that year one was not ideal for embarking on a major professional learning initiative.  Don’t go back to grad school.  Don’t make big life commitments.  Just spend as much time at school as possible – build relationships, be visible, familiarize yourself with the system, and try not to make any big hairy mistakes.

I joined anyway.

One of the big ideas that we wrestled with as a cohort of principals was the balance between doing the work and strategically planning the work.  There is a natural forward propulsion in school buildings – constantly pushing you ahead to address the latest crisis or incident.  It’s hard to escape the constant ringing of bells.  Sometimes you just can’t think – you are constantly reacting and hoping your leadership intuition and training serves you well.  The metaphorical need to “put out fires” sometimes, at least in my experience, included actually putting out fires.

Which is all to say – you need time to think, and plan, and strategize.  You probably can’t do it on site.  There are simply too many distractions.

I get it.  It’s a hard balance and being off campus always feels uncomfortable, but there is intellectual and conceptual work that needs to be done that in many ways only you can do.  I would make similar arguments for teachers who need to attend to the instructional architecture of their classrooms.

Lots of organizations pay big bucks to hire professional consultants to facilitate this type of strategic thinking.  For the most part, we don’t have the resources for that type of support.  And frankly, I think building your strategic muscles internally is a key leadership practice.  So here are a few practical ideas to help you attend to your unique role as a strategic leader.

Go on a retreat

A retreat sounds relaxing, but in reality there isn’t a lot more cognitively demanding work than mapping out a strategic plan. It’s not the type of work you can hammer out in a series of one hour meetings.  You need extended time to entertain different possibilities, lay out priorities, and design systems for communication and ongoing progress monitoring.  You need different types of interactions – sometimes the more informal conversations that happen during lunch or over dinner are where the pieces really start to come together.  You need moments to deeply engage an idea, and more open-ended time to allow an idea to percolate.

And a retreat has a dual benefit.  Not only do you have the possibility of developing a strong strategic plan, but you are helping to build the sense of trust and purpose that will serve your team well in those moments when the work inevitably gets difficult.

Phone a friend

You need thought partners outside your organization.  People who you can trust.  People who aren’t afraid to disagree with you.  People who will tell you the truth about your contributions to the mess.

When you’re inside your own organization, you always wear your authority on your sleeve.  You may work hard to minimize your positional authority, and your staff may genuinely recognize your efforts not to lead solely from a place of power.  But you are the boss – and that impacts the feedback and input of the people around you.  You need to be self-critical, and an outside friend can help you gain that perspective.

My wife is an incredible thought partner.  She is the first to point out that in my work stories, I always paint myself as the protagonist.  We typically tell stories where we are the super-hero or the victim.  She helps me think through challenges and opportunities without paying any attention to my positional authority.  Yes, sometimes it takes time to share enough context for a thought partner to understand the organizational boundaries and limitations, but having access to fresh perspectives is a critical leadership commodity.

Keep Coming Back to It

In schools, summertime is usually the default time for strategic planning.  The lack of students in the building creates a very real sense of space and possibilities.  It’s a little easier to laugh and the time of the year lends itself to reflection and planning.

The summer, unfortunately, isn’t enough.

We don’t learn best in isolated moments.  It is when we engage in an ongoing cycle of learning, planning, experimenting and doing, and then reflecting on our efforts, that we really start to get traction.  The same can be said for your strategic planning as a leader.  You have to keep coming back to it.  You need to reflect on your implementation and direction as it unfolds.

One of the best organizational structures I experienced as a principal was our quarterly Key Performance Indicator (KPI) meetings.  Of course, a data-centric meeting with your boss can easily default into an evaluation meeting, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  In my case, we would gather data on our strategic initiatives and then engage in data dive and consultancy protocols designed to elicit diagnostic thinking from everyone in the room.  Our time together deepened our understanding of the organizational factors at play while strengthening our capacity to move the organization as a team towards realizing our strategic goals.

Regardless of the strategies you use to make it happen, don’t allow the “dailyness” of education leadership to pull you off your top priorities.  My one-day-a-month sessions at Stanford were the birthplace of many of my most important strategic ideas and intentions.  It’s never convenient to take the time out for deep strategic thinking – but the momentum and improvement of the organization you lead certainly rely on you being an effective strategic thinker.  Give it the time it needs.

Find Your Flow: My Digital Guilt Trip


I love reading work productivity blogs and articles.  You know the stuff I’m talking about – the “5 things successful people do every morning” or the “top apps for productivity at work and happiness at home.”  They all basically say the same thing: get up really early, use your highest energy time of the day for the highest priority projects, make time for self-care.  That kind of stuff.  I’ve been wanting to respond to some of these productivity hacks and insights for a while – thus my “Find Your Flow” heading.

One of the most common refrains I read in these articles is the idea that work/life balance is no longer attainable, and that we’ve entered a new reality we call “work/life integration.”  With the advent of the internet and smart phones, we can and do take our work with us everywhere we go.  The idea is that you can’t really turn off work, so you might as well stop trying and find ways to integrate the two together.

One response to the integration is to fight back.  Create clear boundaries and rules and push back on the encroachment.  I was listening to a podcast recently with the designer of the Light Phone, and the idea struck me as brilliant.  Basically, it’s a phone that only has old-school phone capabilities (as in, to call and talk to someone) that has calls forwarded from your smart phone.  No texting.  No internet.  Just phone calls.  Then there are the phone lockboxes, where you put your phone in a box with a timer that keeps you from accessing your phone for a specific amount of time.  How far down the rabbit hole must I be to think these are good ideas, to say nothing of actually spending money to buy these things?

Is this madness to anyone else out there?

So basically, my phone is an ongoing guilt trip.  For example, I’ve been somewhat religiously logging calories using an app on my phone for about 5 months.  I’ve lost nearly 20 lbs.  In terms of weight loss, for me, it’s a strategy that works.  Yet just a few days ago my wife mentioned how annoying it is that during or after every meal I take out my phone to log my food.  I’m annoyed by it too.  It’s distracting and cuts me off from the conversation and the people around me.  But it works.

Some research is starting to suggest that just having the phone out – even if you aren’t using it – can have negative effects on interpersonal conversations.  It’s like a constant reminder of “hey, I’m really into this conversation as long as someone or something more important doesn’t come up on this phone that I’ve conveniently placed on the table between us.”

I guess it’s all a part of a big social experiment that we can’t seem to escape, or at least I can’t seem to.