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,1 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.