Pragmatism or Idealism?

As a strategist this issue seems to surface every time a strategic plan gets written.

If your goals are realistic, let’s say your graduation rate is currently 75% and you think in the next four years you can get it to 85% with some hard work. Does it make sense to say your plan is to increase the graduation rate to 85% by 2024, leaving 15% of the 4th year cohort over the next four years in the dust? Or is it better to set the bar at 100%, knowing that in the short run you will likely fail? Is 100% graduation ever possible?

It is. I wrote the book about a school district in Kentucky that faces all the problems of school systems throughout the country. And yet they have consistently graduated all of their seniors every year.

Ever since Roger Cook got the job as superintendent at Taylor County Schools and asked the board to adopt a zero dropouts policy, every student has graduated on time. This is not a story about social promotion, but a well-researched and documented story of seasoned educators working hard for each and every student.

Since there was little information about this success story, I chose to write Every Child Every Day to tell their story. Since its publication, this book  has been cited in many academic papers and research journals.

Success is within Reach

Since I wrote Every Child Every Day, I have wondered why Roger Cook and Taylor County Schools have been so successful and other districts have struggled to achieve the same results. I have been rereading Michael Porter’s articles on strategy lately and have begun to formulate a theory based upon his writing and research.

Solid strategy provides a general direction, but is not prescriptive. The activities are the specifics and are tailored to that strategy. They are designed to yield the desired results you have outlined, but not just any results…they should be nearly perfect. Why? Let’s assume you have designed five activities and each of those activities are 90% effective and are co-dependent. In that case, you will only achieve 59% of your goal (.9 x .9 x .9 x .9 x .9) Not what you had in mind? That’s why each tailored activity must be nearly 100% effective.

Roger Cook’s goals are simple – no students will drop out, no students will fail, no students will be held back due to their chronological age. The tailored activities that I have outlined in the book are not random, they have been created and implemented to yield these results. Not some of these results, but 100%. That is why they have had no dropouts for eight consecutive years and continue to have test results in the highest categories.

How do you duplicate this success? Establish a strategy (a simple set of goals) and then create a handful of activities you think that will result in those goals. Find a way to continuously monitor those activities (not an annual event) so that you know when they are done with fidelity and are 100% effective. Adjust them until they consistently accomplish the goal. This is not the end, it is just the beginning. It is your baseline.

Conditions change. Maintaining the results you want can be just as difficult as getting there. So you must create a culture in which the activities you have tailored can be tweaked to improve performance. Again, anything less than 100% is not desirable, particularly if these are nested activities.

My experience and research with Taylor County Schools convinced me that success even at the highest levels is possible. Not because of a special set of circumstances, but as a result of a great deal of planning and hard work.


Community Support

As problem solvers, The School Solutions Group often seeks input from a district’s stakeholders, but if you are seeking support and not input.creating academic momentum Be transparent about  your intentions. As I said in Creating Academic Momentum:

There is a difference between a community outreach that seeks input and one that seeks support. Demonstrate to the community that your values are in sync with theirs, and ask for their support. This is not to say that some community members won’t have great ideas that you can use. Just be clear about what you are soliciting so that everyone is clear about expectations.

Creating Academic Momentum


creating academic momentumFrom the foreword to the book by George Couros:

As Mike says in the book: “Education should provide opportunities, not barriers.” For this to happen, we will need to challenge our thinking and continuously ask: “How can we?” Leaders from any position, find a way forward; that’s why they are leaders. See the possibilities and find that way.


A Companion Book


creating academic momentumMuch discussion has occurred after the release of Every Child, Every Day.

  • How do we replicate those results?
  • How do we create a culture in which this is possible?
  • What sort of leadership is necessary to accomplish this?
  • Isn’t this an awful lot of work?
  • This makes sense. How do I begin?

Creating Academic Momentum: Realizing the promise of performance-based education is my response. It is not a step-by-step guide because every local condition is a little different and must be nuanced. What the writing does provide is guidance regarding the platform upon which to build. In the chapter on collaboration:

It is just as hard to admit a mistake as it is to ask for help. Both make us feel vulnerable and inadequate. some of that has to do with the way the help is ultimately offered. An attitude of superiority in providing any help that is requested is detrimental to collaboration. Help should be offered without judgement. No one has all the answers in this ever-changing educational and technical landscape. Eventually everyone has to ask for help.

Just released by Rowman & Littlefield, it is available in paperback, clothbound, and e-book editions wherever good books are sold.


For those of you attending the National School Boards Association annual conference in Boston, Roger Cook will be presenting Learning in a School That Never Closes on Sunday at 1:30 pm in 104A. If you haven’t heard him speak, you are in for a treat!

The book about his district, Every Child, Every Day, is for sale at the NSBA conference bookstore.

Balancing Head Work and Hand Work

In her Synapse post, Alex Ellison (founder of DunceLabs) questions what would happen if more AP students learned a trade. At Taylor County Schools in Campbellsville Kentucky (the subject of the book) every student is required to declare a career by their junior year.

The purpose is the same, although the method is somewhat different.

  • There is a balance to be achieved between academics (head work) and skills (hand work). My wife and I owned and operated an organic farm for ten years. During that time I also worked as a planner for a large public school district. Modulating between the harvest of vegetables and flowers and the calculation of student assignments was not only exhilarating, but also made me better at both.
  • Many students learn through connecting the what to the why. Having a career direction to apply the knowledge, makes knowledge acquisition practical and far more interesting particularly for those with limited attention spans.
  • Creativity is enhanced when there is an opportunity to move between head work and hand work. “Unconscious ideation” is what Koestler called it. Eureka moments don’t often happen at your desk.

The more I read and learn from education literature, the more I am impressed by what is happening under the leadership of Roger Cook and his team in Kentucky. I am profoundly grateful to have been able to describe their work in Every Child, Every Day.

The Six Spoke Wheel of Personalized Learning

Taylor County Schools delivers their program in six different ways depending upon how each student learns best. This is the banner that hangs on the wall of the board room.

My publishers have been great throughout the entire process of taking a manuscript to final product. There has been one glitch and that has to do with the figure on page three that has been difficult to correct. If you have already ordered or received a book with an unusual diagram on page three, just print this slipsheet as an insert into your book. I am sure most of you have figured it out, but just in case this is the corrected diagram for the six spokes. Thanks for understanding.img004

Leadership Finesse

In his post in Synapse Richard Kississieh talks about school leaders leading with a small rudder.

From the coxswain’s seat, a school leader may read the race and the river, set timing and tempo, anticipate turns, and pull on the tiny rudder when needed. School leaders play a vital role in successively shaping many small aspects of a school to consistently support a vision for teaching and learning.

In Every Child, Every Day I describe a superintendent and staff that appear larger than life, but upon reflection I realize that they had the good sense to understand they were steering with a small rudder, not using a blunt instrument. Superintendent Roger Cook said of naysayers in one interview, “If they think we haven’t dealt with everything they have to deal with, they’re out of their minds!”