Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Playing to Win

This post was published as the "Superintendent's Corner" column for the Fall 2018 edition of the Shrewsbury School Journal.

The Red Sox are World Series champs, again!  It was very satisfying to witness the defeat of the Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers by a Sox team that maintained their poise and played with confidence, especially after each single loss to those opponents (especially the 18-inning marathon against LA!).  In this age of sophisticated statistics, Red Sox manager, Alex Cora, and his coaches used various analytics to make decisions that put players and the team in a better position to succeed.  However, it was clear that some choices regarding whom to put in the batting lineup and when to bring in certain pitchers were also made based on the manager’s intuition regarding what he felt was psychologically needed at the time, in order to create a climate that signaled that the Sox were playing to win.

Every sports fan knows that there is a distinctive difference between “playing to win” and “playing not to lose,” especially when the pressure is high.  When watching a game, you can sense the level of confidence displayed by teams and athletes as the game ebbs and flows.  Success is usually achieved by those who play with conviction as they strive for victory, and it eludes those who play tentatively in an effort not to make mistakes.  Successful coaches motivate their players by empowering them in ways that signal trust in their abilities, while coaches whose teams fail often create an atmosphere where players are mainly worried about messing up.  After all, it’s hard to hit a home run if you are afraid of striking out!  

These concepts also apply to how we educate our students.  If they receive signals from educators and parents – either intentionally or unintentionally – that the most important thing is not to make mistakes, anxiety and fear of looking bad or falling short is the result, and that is not conducive to learning.  On the other hand, when educators and parents emphasize learning as growth and view mistakes as a natural part of improvement, students are more likely to feel empowered and motivated to achieve goals – and they’re more likely to be resilient when the inevitable mistakes happen.  

Similarly, if educators receive signals, either intentionally or unintentionally, that what matters most for our students’ success is making the fewest mistakes on standardized tests and other traditional measures of learning, this can lead to overemphasizing a narrow range of skills and knowledge.  Focusing too much on what is convenient to measure creates the danger of having “our kids study what’s easy to test, not what’s important to learn,” as education advocate and venture capitalist Ted Dintersmith suggests.  We don’t want to create an atmosphere where teachers are intent on minimizing student errors, which is the schoolhouse equivalent of “playing not to lose,” as it stifles innovation.  Instead, we want our educators to engage our students in ways that ignite their curiosity and motivate them to apply skills and knowledge in order to develop the essential capacities of critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration.

We have successful schools, and it would be easy to play it safe, keep doing what we’ve been doing, and try not to make mistakes.  I think our children deserve better than that.  Our bold vision for every Shrewsbury graduate requires us to empower our educators, students, and families to play to win – where winning means, to paraphrase Thoreau, that our students will have the confidence to pursue their dreams, the motivation to work toward the life they imagine, and, in doing so, achieve the success known by those who strive to become their best selves.

Thursday, June 21, 2018


These were my remarks at the graduation ceremony for the Shrewsbury High School Class of 2018.

Members of the School Committee; administrators, faculty, and staff; parents, family, and guests; and, most importantly, members of the Class of 2018 – it is an honor and a privilege to address you this evening.

During your time at SHS, you have collectively achieved many honors in academics, student government, the visual and performing arts, academic competitions, robotics, speech and debate, and athletics.  I know one of your most cherished memories is when you experienced an incredible back-to-back triumph.  No, I’m not talking about the two consecutive boys hockey state championships, but rather something you seniors found even more momentous: back-to-back snow days this past January.  This started a run that included a total of six cancellations, three two-hour delays, and even one early dismissal.  You’re welcome.

I actually had intended to include the topic of snow days in these remarks even before some of you referenced the many snow day calls I made during this past epic winter at Commemoration, and again just now in my introduction.  While my job has many facets, the one that people are clearly most fascinated with is the power to cancel school due to bad weather.  So, what goes into the decision to have a snow day?  Ouija board? Flip a coin? Pressure from your clever social media postings the night before the storm? Pleas from my own three daughters?  Nope.  Of course, sometimes it’s an easy call, when the roads are impassable and school parking lots and entrances can’t possibly be cleared in time.  Other times, it’s very tricky, because the conditions are questionable.  Those situations, like many situations in life, require observation, analysis, and the consideration of principles before making a judgment.  In the case of deciding whether to cancel school, I observe the road conditions (sometimes while still in my SHS Colonial pajamas); I analyze the weather forecast; and I consider the most important principle, which is the safety of students and staff.  However, my decision does not hinge on whether there is any risk to safety – because there’s always some risk – but on whether holding school under those conditions will create too great of a risk.  Regardless of what I decide is prudent, I know that some, perhaps many, will disagree with my decision and criticize me for it.  I also know that I could very well end up being wrong and making a bad decision.  Now, few if any of you are going to become superintendents and need to know how to decide whether to call off school due to a bunch of snowflakes, but I think the approach applies more broadly.  In fact, in your futures, how you determine the facts, assess risk, make decisions, cope with disagreement and criticism, and acknowledge your own imperfections will determine whether you will affirm – or defy – the pejorative moniker used to label your generation: namely, that you are a bunch of snowflakes.

You may have heard that your age group has been described as “Generation Snowflake.” This stereotype stems from the idea that you can’t handle the metaphorical heat of the “real world” without melting away; that your ability to cope with difficulty or disagreement is fragile; that you cannot handle disappointment and failure; and that you cannot tolerate risk or even discomfort.  Some who subscribe to this idea suggest that it’s all your parents’ fault, because they are “helicopters” who hovered too close, never allowing you to experience independence and develop self-confidence, or because they are “snowplows” who cleared away any and all obstacles and difficulties in your path, never allowing you to experience failures and consequences.  This stereotype sometimes adds a modifier, as in “special snowflakes,” suggesting that the adult world has told you all along how unique and amazing you are, creating a sense of entitlement where you and your parents believe you should get a trophy just for being you – and woe to the teacher or coach who suggests that success needs to be earned, not bestowed.

But...I’m not buying into this stereotype.  It’s not that some of these characteristics and behaviors don’t exist, because they surely do, and they can be very problematic.   However, they have existed in every generation to some degree.  I’m sure certain attributes show up with more or less frequency in certain generations depending on the times, but suggesting that everyone born between certain years, and their parents, all act the same is painting with a way-too-broad brush.  Of course, the tendency of one generation to criticize the next as being less motivated, less respectful, and not as tough as one’s own has existed throughout human history, and that won’t change (I’ve done it, and you’ll likely do it someday as well).  

So while some may think you’re all snowflakes, here’s what I know:  I know that you’ve worked hard; I know that you’ve overcome obstacles; and I know that you’ve earned the many accomplishments you’ve individually and collectively achieved.  I also know that you have been kind, accepting, and thoughtful regarding many of the challenges we face in today’s society, whether supporting those who experienced natural disasters, serving the less fortunate, or honoring the victims of school shootings. I appreciate the sensitivity you’ve shown.  Unfortunately, the term “snowflake” has also become a way in which some seek to disparage those whom they deem as overly sensitive.  While hypersensitivity is counterproductive, don’t fall for the falsehood that being sensitive means that you’re weak. Being empathetic, honoring differences, and considering others’ perspectives are signs of strength. As the late, great basketball coach, John Wooden, once said: “There is nothing stronger than gentleness.”  Don’t confuse being tough with being callous, which is a problem every generation in our society is struggling with these days.

However, to live your best lives, you will need to develop the right kinds of toughness.  You will need to develop the courage to take risks and put yourself in challenging, uncomfortable situations in order to develop your abilities, and you will need to stand up for what is right to develop your character. You will need to cope with disappointment and tragedy.   When you do, you’ll be even stronger than before.  As my grandmother often said, “You can’t come out steel unless you go through the fire.” 

I am confident that you have the capability to defy the snowflake stereotype.  To do so, be aware of the facts; be courageous and prudent when assessing risk; be principled in your decision-making; be open to learning from those who disagree and criticize; be humble in the knowledge that you are imperfect and your mistakes will be your own; be gentle and kind towards others; be resilient when the inevitable challenges and disappointments come; and be tough when it comes to doing the right thing.  If you are these things, it won’t matter what anyone labels you, because you will be a person who makes your family, your friends, and yourself, proud.

On behalf of everyone in the Shrewsbury Public Schools, congratulations, and good luck.

Leading the Nation

This post was published as the "Superintendent's Corner" column for the Winter 2018 edition of the Shrewsbury School Journal.

Did you know that Massachusetts is considered to be the top state in the nation for public education?

Consider the following facts, which are provided by the Department of Elementary & Secondary Education as part of its “Leading the Nation” campaign and by the national publication Education Week:                             

  • Statewide, our students are #1 in the U.S. in reading and math on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), “The Nation’s Report Card”; for 2015, the most recent released test results, was the sixth straight administration (2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2015) in which Massachusetts students scored first or statistically tied for first place on the NAEP math and reading fourth and eighth grade tests.
  • #1 in the world in reading on the PISA international assessment (2016): If Massachusetts were a nation, it would share the top spot in reading with eight other nations worldwide. In science, the state's students and those from 10 nations came in second, trailing only students from Singapore. In math, 11 other nations were ahead of the Commonwealth.                                                                                                                                                                                               
  • #1 in Advanced Placement success in the country (2017) in terms of the percentage of the class of 2016 that scored a 3 or higher on an Advanced Placement exam. In addition, the Commonwealth had the highest five- and ten-year growth in the percentage of graduates who scored a 3 or higher.
  • Massachusetts' four-year graduation rate has increased each of the last 10 years, and the dropout rate has decreased during the same period of time.

  • Massachusetts again earned the overall #1 ranking in Education Week’s overall national assessment of states’ public education quality, including #1 rankings in the study’s “Chance-for-Success Index” and for “K-12 Achievement”.

Much has been written about why Massachusetts public schools have excelled in comparison to peers across the U.S., and this story begins with the 1993 Education Reform Act, now 25 years old.  This legislation resulted in significantly more state and local financial investment in public schools, established rigorous learning standards across multiple subjects, required state assessments to measure student performance against those standards, and promoted the professionalization of teaching.  Additionally, unlike what often happens with “education reform” initiatives, these efforts were sustained over a long period, with the understanding that significant improvement takes time. 

Here in Shrewsbury, our students and educators have made many contributions over the years to Massachusetts’ overall success, and given our schools’ relative achievement to others across the state, it is clear that our schools are among the strongest in the nation.  However, we have not “rested on our laurels,” and over the past few years we have been working hard to identify how we can continue to shape our students’ educational experiences so that we are not only providing them with the academic, communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking skills that will enable them to be successful in a rapidly-changing economy, but also the social and emotional competencies that will empower our students to be focused and resilient individuals who contribute positively to the welfare of their community and society.

Thanks to recent initiatives such as the district’s “Innovation in Learning Study Group” and our “Portrait of a Graduate Working Group,”  along with a strategic planning initiative this past fall that included significant input from the community, we have created a compelling shared vision and an ambitious but achievable set of strategic priorities and goals for the Shrewsbury Public Schools, which build on our past successes while preparing students for their future.  I invite you to explore our website at to learn more about how we are meeting our mission to “provide the skills and knowledge for the 21st century” to our students, and, in so doing, achieving our motto’s aspiration of “empowering learners.”  There, you will find this inspirational one-minute video that our own SHS Television Production students created that was selected in a statewide contest to be shown at the “Leading the Nation” kickoff event at the State House!  When you watch it, I believe that you will feel a great sense of pride in our schools, which I am confident will continue to help “lead the nation” in providing educational opportunities for our students in the years ahead.