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Tag: cynical

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,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.


I’ve decided I like the word “kerfuffle”. Wiktionary defines it as “A disorderly outburst, disturbance, commotion or tumult.”, but I have a better use.

It has a very silly sound, almost Seussian, so I think it should be narrowly applied to any kind of pointless or artifically contrived controversy.

The kind of stuff that fills most of the day on cable news.

An Open Message to Our New Superintendent

Welcome to the overly-large school district. I know you’ve been on the job for more than a month but it’s been a busy summer and I’m just now getting around to this post. Not that you’ll ever read the message but writing it makes me feel better.

By this time, I’m sure lots of people have told you just how wonderful our system is. Someone has probably even used the phrase “lighthouse district” at least once. Never quite sure that that means but it’s been used around here since I started way back when.*

However, if you want a good snapshot of this huge educational community you will get just that during our annual Leadership Conference later this week. And it’s a somewhat schizophrenic picture.

Sitting in the large performing arts center at the local university, we will spend the morning listening to a parade of speakers who will alternate between telling us what a great job we are doing and the educational cliches (“digital learning”, creativity, “21st century skills”) we should be doing. I’m working on my bingo card if you’d like to play along.

The high-priced keynote speaker this time around will be Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons, who, I assume will explain about all the things his country does to educate their children that we fail to do. Of course we’ve heard similar messages in past years from some other big names (Ken Robinson, Tony Wagner, Daniel Pink, etc.) and then pretty much ignored all their advice.

Scattered during the morning we’ll also see several inspirational videos of teachers and kids, all of which are very much exceptions to what is normal in our schools. Plus a couple of performances by student groups, which probably rehearse before or after school. That last part is supposed to give us a warm feeling about their dedication but it says more about our priorities and the lack of status given to the arts.

After all the inspirational pictures and talk in the morning, we’ll spend the afternoon in breakout sessions on a variety of topics. And, although the session titles use the same verbiage as heard in the morning, the content will be more about the reality of modern American education.

Lots of discussion about gathering and analyzing data (euphemism for taking tests) and closing the minority gap (aka improving the test scores of certain sociological groups).

If this coming school year is anything like most in the recent past, following all this inspirational talk, principals will return to their schools and little will change. Most teachers will continue to use the district-provided curriculum and “pacing guides” to prepare their students for the spring round of standardized tests. And video crews will be out in the schools looking for the rare exceptional classroom to record for next year’s Leadership Conference.

Too cynical? Maybe. I’d love to be wrong but that will require you to bring about some drastic alterations to the culture of this district. In the age of NCLB (born in Texas where you’ve spent your whole career) we’ve gotten very good at playing the testing game. Even our lowest schools have better scores than most of the rest of the state.

Anyway, welcome to the east coast branch of Lake Wobegon. Just ask anyone in our echo chamber… we’re all, kids and staff alike, above average.

* “Keeping the main thing the main thing” is another legendary phrase around here. Do me a big favor and please fire the next person who uses it.

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