Acting Small in an Overly-Large System

George Couros, one of the most thoughtful voices in my RSS feed, recently wrote about leading in a large school district. The post was triggered by an administrator with a good question: “Do you really believe that you can make this change happen with such a large district?”

That “large” district serves 30,000 students and it started me thinking again about the overly-large school district in which I worked for many, many years.1 If this person has trouble wrapping their head around steering a system that size, what does it take to significantly change course in one with more than 188,000 students? As I’ve said, overly-large.

One of George’s suggestions is that “leadership needs to always act small”, regardless of the actual size of the system. He wonders whether teachers and others actually know who the superintendent is, and by extension in a large system, the other members of the “leadership team”.

Does your leadership go into schools? When they do, does anyone know? Do they show up with their “entourage” and pop in and out? Do they hang out in classrooms, sometimes bring their laptop, and sit in classrooms to understand the impact of their decisions on classrooms? You should never make decisions for classrooms, students, and teachers unless you are present in those classrooms.

I know when any of the superintendents I worked for visited a school, it was a major press event. They never sat in a classroom without plenty of notice and several assistants in tow. Plus at least one photographer. Same for school board members, most of whom seemed to make principals very nervous.

Later in the post, George makes this observation.

Your district or school might be gigantic, but if you are in a leadership position, your job is the same; you serve students and educators.

In an overly-large district like ours, I think the superintendent and most of the leadership team often lose sight of that idea. Their days (and many nights) were often taken up by various political factions and issues, both internal and external, leaving little time to consider the everyday process of teaching and learning. Occasionally some of them will talk about “change”. It’s usually in very general terms, using the cliches drawn from the most current issue of their ed journals, and little of it gets translated into policy.

Now, none of this is intended to be critical of the people themselves. Most of the leaders in our district were well meaning (with the exception of a few nutball school board members) and believed their work was in the best interest of students. It’s the nature of the job that they have no time to develop a good understanding of the impact their decisions made in the thousands of classrooms of our district.

Currently the Fairfax school board is looking for a new superintendent to try and steer this colossus. They hired a “top” recruitment firm to conduct the usual “exhaustive national search”. Screening for the qualities of vision, leadership, and the ability to make data-driven decisions, at the top of the impossibly long list. The board should be getting close to making a decision, at least if they want that person in place for the start of the annual budget wrestling season.

But, I fully expect the person they hire will be far more CEO than educator. The little time spent in classrooms will be for show, when time allows. As to using social media to “create visibility during times that you can’t physically get into classrooms”, as George suggests, don’t hold your breath. It will be interesting to see if this one has any online footprint at all. Beyond newspaper articles and press releases, that is.

Something is Missing

It’s been a couple of years since the Los Angeles Unified School District received national attention for the roll out of their 1:1 device program. And not attention in a good way.

This past July a group of researchers released an assessment of the program that offered “lessons on what not to do when rolling out technology and devices across a large school district”.

It’s long, very academic, and full of suggestions that should have been obvious from the start. Like better planning, communications, and professional development.

However, towards the very end of the executive summary the report arrives at what was probably at the core of the problem with LA’s initiative.

At its heart, the ITI [Instructional Technology Initiative] is about both technology and instruction, and effective management of it required coordination and communication between technical and instructional teams and leaders. The structure of LAUSD (and many other districts) is such that the instructional division is separate from the technical division. These divisions did not seem reach a level of collaboration that would be needed to avoid the challenges ITI encountered, and on some issues seemed to be unable to resolve differences in perspective (for example, on issues related to Apple IDs).

As I’ve ranted about more than a few times, Fairfax County, my former employer (aka the overly-large school district) is at the beginning of the process to implement a 1:1 program. But long before that, they already had cemented in place that same problem from LAUSD.

That “coordination and communication” between the technical and instruction departments is tenuous at best. With IT making instructional decisions, primarily due to a lack of leadership on the instructional side.

IT’s goal is for these 1:1 devices to be cheap and easy to manage, and I don’t blame them for that. Instruction’s goal is far less clear.

In the shiny new “strategic plan”, the superintendent and school board have set a target of 2017 for every student to have a device. So one motivation is that the boss said to do it.

At the same time we hear the super, her assistant supers, principals and others speak vaguely about future ready, 21st century skills, digital natives, blah, blah, blah, while continuing to foster, encourage, and support a test prep culture in schools.

Completely missing on the instruction side in this project is a crystal clear articulation of how giving each student a device will transform instruction and improve their learning. Much more difficult than IT’s job.

More Leadership Disconnect

It’s been a quiet/busy/chaotic (take your pick) summer here in Lake Wobegon (aka the overly-large school district). Schools are still closed, of course,2 with most teachers goofing off (which many politicians will tell you is what they always do) and most students playing around but not learning, because we know that real learning only occurs on “school days” and in official buildings.

But for our administrators, tech trainers, and other school staff, plus the rest of us lazy, wasteful central office types,2 today marks the start of a new year: our Leadership Conference. The day-long annual event where everyone assembles at a local college to get inspired for the coming year. And hear just how bad the budget for the following year will be.

I’ve been going to (and writing about) these things for a long time and, unfortunately, the content of the long morning session never changes. Lots of praise from local leaders for the job we’re doing in educating our children, inspirational videos featuring selected wise kids and adults, and token fine arts performances to remind everyone that testing hasn’t completely strangled those programs.

All of which is wrapped around an address by the superintendent (who this year didn’t waste any time getting to the data) and a keynote talk by a high profile outside expert, this time a female Navy fighter pilot telling us all about leadership skills that come from landing on an aircraft carrier at night. Interesting. Entertaining. Still trying to figure out the relevance.

Ok, I freely admit that I’ve become a little cynical3 about these affairs. Each year we hear from a wide variety of people, including big thinkers like Ken Robinson, Tony Wagner, Pasi Sahlberg, and Daniel Pink, about how we need change our approach and help our kids learn to be creative, innovative, problem-solvers, instead of skillful test takers.

However, when the kids return in September, most school administrators fall back into the same mindset, pushing teachers to spend a large part of the year on a test-prep approach for most students. The engaging, interactive stuff we hear about, like STEM or maker activities or a problem-based approach, is all restricted to special occasions. Or reserved for the kids we know will have no trouble passing the SOLs in the spring.

We continue to talk a good game before the academic year begins. But still have a huge disconnect between what we are told school should be and the 20th century (19th?), teacher-directed, fact-based, narrow-defined central curriculum approach to learning that is the reality for most kids.

Do We Have Vision?

In his comment to an earlier rant about planning for a 1:1 program, Will asks a good question.

So, technology rollouts begin with a clear vision for teaching and learning first, with or without technology. The device should amplify your vision. So, does your district have one?

Vision?

Well, we have a plan of sorts. It’s called the School Technology Profiles and lists the type of equipment that classrooms at each level should have (assuming the ideal budget situation). But that’s a shopping list, certainly not a vision for learning.

We have a huge committee, with members from IT, instruction and support, that meets once a month to discuss technology in our overly-large school district. But that’s more about a parade of reports from the various offices on their current work. Maybe some short term vision but very little about teaching and learning.

The superintendent has a project called Portrait of a Graduate, which is supposed to define the skills a student leaving our schools should have. Stuff like “Uses technological skills and contemporary digital tools to explore and exchange ideas”. But that’s the only mention of technology in a list of 27 traits most of which, as I’ve explained in other posts, would have been appropriate for a successful adult living in almost any of the past ten centuries. Not much vision there. For learning or the use of technology to enhance it.

Of course, the school board has their “Beliefs, Mission, Vision” page. Doesn’t every organization have something like this? It was likely assembled by a committee with representatives of all the “stakeholders”4, the result being a laundry list of inspiring statements strung together into something that says nothing. We’ll call it “vision”.

So, I guess my answer for Will is that yes, our district has a vision for teaching and learning. It’s muddled, antiquated, vague to those of us whose work it’s supposed to guide, banal sounding to the community, and not nearly far reaching enough to address the needs of students who are entering an increasingly uncomfortable world.

As to his other question about what I mean by learning… still working on that one.

Lacking Leadership

Here in the overly large school district we are having a big argument over the use of Chromebooks. But the merits of that particular device is a discussion for another post. This particular rant concerns the huge leadership vacuum we have around here when it comes to the larger issue of instructional technology.

The Chromebook conflict involves our little group in the instruction department, many of our school-based trainers, and some of our principals versus the IT department. And, as is usually the case in conflicts like this, IT prevails. Not because they have solid research or compelling facts or even good anecdotal evidence on their side. No, what IT has is a leader willing and ready to express a vision for the place for technology in our educational process.

That the IT vision is a very narrow one, incorporating educational clichés often drawn from tech industry publications, and skewed towards what is most convenient for their technicians to set up and manage is totally irrelevant. When an instructional technology issue is raised in our system, their leaders are most often the people called to respond, the people who jump in front of the microphones to answer the questions. The IT voice is the one that fills the silence.

So where are our leaders on the instructional side? The ones with actual teaching and school administration experience who are supposed to represent the needs of teachers, students, and schools?

When it comes to a vision for technology in teaching and learning, we find that huge leadership vacuum. The superintendent, her deputy super, and other assorted members of her “leadership” team offer nice phrases about “21st century” this and that, they’re concerned about inequity, suggesting that we need programs like 1-1 computing, and they rave over photo-op sidebars like BYOD.

What they lack, however, is any kind of cohesive, clearly articulated concept of the place of technology for instruction. How all the devices and connectivity, on which we already spend tens of millions of dollars a year, might alter and improve the traditional educational process. Where should we be heading in the future.

Certainly we have teachers, school administrators, and others of us who are trying to shake things up, attempting to fill in the empty space and articulate some forward-looking ideas. And that kind of grassroots, guerrilla-style approach to leadership can be very effective, especially in a large bureaucratic structure. But it’s also a slow, scattered, largely unfocused approach to changing a system that is in love with it’s past successes, and which values inertia over almost everything else.

Ok, so none of my ravings here are meant to disparage the people in our IT department, most of whom are nice, very talented people doing a great job with the given resources. But the bottom line is that IT should not be making final decisions on what tools and techniques are used in the classroom. It should be the job of our instructional leaders, beginning with a clear definition of our instructional needs.

If they would only accept their responsibility.