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Blankstein on Creating a 'Failure Is Not an Option' Culture

Live from the ASCD Annual Conference in Philadelphia

In a jam-packed post-lunch session, Alan Blankstein, author of Failure Is Not an Option: Six Principles that Guide Student Achievement in High Performing Schools, gave a fun, if hurried, presentation on creating a school culture that breeds successful students. He kicked things off with a true demonstration of what engagement can look like—getting the audience of mostly administrators up and clapping (and even swaying their hips) as he danced down the aisle to Aretha Franklin's "Respect." He went on to explain the importance of using interdisciplinary, multi-modal instruction to keep kids involved. Overall, he said, "I'd rather teachers lose the curriculum than lose the kids."

Not a bad start.

Blankstein then discussed the conditions necessary for building "a failure is not an option culture." They are: 1) Teachers pursue a clear, shared purpose for all student learning; 2) teachers engage in collaborative activity to achieve that purpose; and 3) teachers take collective responsibility for all student learning.

That third condition is often the hardest to accomplish, he said. Blankstein, president of the non-profit Hope Foundation, described a situation in which one teacher who struggles with teaching fractions has a teacher across the hall from him who knows this is his weakness. The teacher across the hall listens in, and when her colleague begins teaching fractions, she goes to his room and offers to switch classes with him for that lesson. In this scenario, the students do not miss out on effective instruction even for one lesson. It's a bit of a stretch, as I see it (do any teachers really know exactly what their colleagues are doing at any one moment?), but it highlights the benefits of an open-door policy and a collaborative rather than competitive culture.

Blankstein also briefly outlined the steps schools can take to get to that open-door policy: Teachers identify the observable indicators of effective instruction, norm the indicators, create their own rubrics for effectively evaluating instruction, and eventually start doing schoolwide learning walks with all that in mind.

Several times throughout the session, Blankstein brought up his own troubled background—including the years he spent in a group home for boys and his ensuing struggles with drugs—presumably to illustrate that good teachers and schools really can turn children's lives around. "He's still my favorite," I heard an attendee remark on the way out the door, to affirmations from those around her. Seems Blankstein makes a compelling case.

(Editors' Note: Alan Blankstein will be a featured speaker at upcoming Education Week Leadership Forums on Scaling Up Student Success in Jersey City, N.J., and Columbus, Ohio.)

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