Tomorrow is our annual Leadership Conference here in the overly-large school district, a day-long event for all school-based administrators and the rest of us over a certain pay grade.  The idea is to assemble the system leaders1 in one place to get inspired for the new school year.

I need to create bingo card or something to keep track of the number of educational clichés presented from the stage. Phrases like “21st century skills”, “the 4 C’s”2, “digital natives”, and so many more. I’m pretty sure no one will mention standardized testing, instead using euphemisms like “assessment”, “data”, or “student achievement”.

For the third year in a row, the conference theme, and our guiding principles for the year, is expressed in this phrase:

All schools will build professional learning communities that employ best practices to raise the bar and close achievement gaps.

There are a lot of concepts packed into those few words and, as with any mission-type statement that’s been heavily wordsmithed by committee, it sounds more impressive than the reality deserves..

Start with that last part. “Close the achievement gaps” is pretty simple to understand: we want to increase the test scores of kids in all those NCLB subgroups that get schools put on the “fail” list. Better numbers, not necessarily better learning.

That first part about building “professional learning communities” is a little more complex and actually our schools have been using the concept in one form or another for more than ten years now.3

However, when I visit schools, the implementation usually doesn’t look anything like a “community” and often doesn’t involve much about learning. In fact, the most common purpose for the regular meetings of these groups is to create common “assessments” for the kids to take, mostly in the form of practice for the standardized tests.

I also find it rather curious that very few if any of these “communities” extend beyond the school door, or beyond the grade level or subject area, for that matter. Somewhat limits the learning.

Then there’s the part about “best practices”.

I’m always a little suspicious when someone says they have the best idea in any discussion. Especially when it comes to teaching kids, best should be a variable, not an absolute.

Anyway, that’s what we’re in for tomorrow: a mix of high minded cliches with an undercurrent of the very traditional. Plus lots of talk and a few video productions about how wonderful we are.

Somewhat predictable, but I’ll still be there. I suppose there’s always a chance someone in our leadership will surprise us.

1 As you might expect, few if any teachers will attend, reinforcing the idea that teachers are not leaders. Certainly not in the formal structure of our bureaucracy.

2 That’s creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. For those who are tired of the long-winded phrase “21st century skills”.

3 Many now use the phrase “collaborative learning team” (CLT), “collaborative team” (CT), or some other equally meaningless variation.