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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.

A Tale of Two Learning Opportunties

Although teachers here in the overly-large school district have a couple of weeks left in their summer break, and the kids don’t return for another month, many of us are working to get things in place for the start of a new school year.

Last week we held the annual kickoff event for our school-based tech trainers and, for a variety of reasons, we decided to use an EdCamp format. Over the past few years I’ve participated in many of these unconferences for educators (and loved every minute of them) but it’s not a concept familiar to many in our group. So I was a little nervous about the day, especially since I’ve never been to an unconference where attendance was mandatory.

I didn’t need to worry. The group suggested a slate of great topics and everyone was involved in the discussions, including collecting lots of notes. And many took the rule of two feet seriously, finding the conversations that worked for them. All in all a very good introduction to EdCamp.

Now contrast that experience with tomorrow when all of us will attend the system’s annual Leadership Conference.

If the event follows the same format as in the many past years, and I have no reason to believe it won’t, the morning will be filled with speeches from district leaders, school board members, other politicians, and a big name keynote, plus a few videos and a couple of student fine arts performances, for 2000 or so of us in a large performing arts hall. In the afternoon, we’ll attend two breakout sessions, which will be slideshow-based presentations held in slightly smaller groups.

Two kickoff events, two opportunities for learning, two very different formats. Which one would you want to be part of?

Now I’m not saying we could turn the Leadership Conference into an EdCamp, especially considering the number of people involved. But there are plenty of ways our administrators could make the day more interactive and a much better learning experience for everyone.

It only takes a little of that creative thinking and innovation they keep telling us to use.

The Finnish Difference

In his weekly email message to our principals, the deputy superintendent for our overly-large school district opened with this quote from Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons and keynote speaker at last week’s Leadership Conference.

The true Finnish difference is that teachers in Finland may exercise their professional knowledge and judgment both widely and freely in their schools. They control curriculum, student assessment, school improvement and community involvement.

I found it an interesting choice since…

Teachers here can’t control the curriculum. It is extremely prescribed, heavily scripted and, in most cases, laser focused on the state standardized tests.

In many schools teachers don’t have much to say about assessment due to the growing clamor for data and a push to use the online testing system on which we’ve spent a lot of time and money to create “common assessments”.

Some might be involved in school improvement but goals for those plans often come from district administration and offer schools very little flexibility.

As for community involvement, that varies widely depending on many factors, most of which are not something over which teachers are allowed much influence.

All of this is not to say that our schools couldn’t change to move closer to Sahlberg’s Finnish difference.

It will only require a seismic shift in the beliefs and attitudes of administrators, principals, support staff, students, parents – not to mention the entire American society, especially many politicians and other educational “experts” – to one that trusts the “professional knowledge and judgement” of teachers. 

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.

Leadership Rerun

Last Wednesday, our superintendent summoned all of his administrators (along with us lazy, evil central office folks) to assemble in the fine arts theater at a local college for the Leadership Conference here in the overly-large school district.

This was the setting for our annual kickoff to the new school year, part inspirational talk, part self-congratulatory presentations, plus a keynote from an expensive high-profile author selling a new book. Although the venue has changed over the years, very little about this event does. And this post will probably not differ much from my past rants on the topic.

Our keynote speaker was Tony Wagner, addressing the themes in his book “Creating Innovators”, and the same person we heard from three years ago. He gave a pretty good presentation, discussing his research into the factors that make people innovative. Once again he told us how our students have changed, how the world is different, and how we need to change our practice.

The problem with Wagner’s talk, and really with most of the inspirational talk from the other speakers, is that what is said is very much disconnected from what everyone in the audience understands is expected of them once school starts.

All of this is very familiar to those of us who have sat through the conference over the years. We are told that schools must help students learn how to collaborate on projects, communicate on a global scale, be creative, and acquire all those other attributes that go way beyond memorizing facts.

However, once the year begins, the emphasis returns to collecting and analyzing data, and increasing student achievement, all based on the same clichéd themes recycled from the past two years. In other words, giving lots and lots of practice tests in order to get every student to pass their spring standardized tests.

I’d like to think that this will be the year that things start changing, now that the state has its wavers from the provisions of NCLB and the superintendent has told us to stop using AYP in our vocabulary.*

But I doubt it.

I’m afraid that schools are already way too addicted to test scores (or am I supposed to call it “data”) to substantially change, and it’s likely to get worse since the state is “recommending” that 40% of teachers’ evaluations under their new system be based on “student academic progress”.

Anyway, that’s how we start the school year around here. What’s it like in your part of the world?


* Interesting… that little piece didn’t appear in the official transcript of his remarks.

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