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Predictable Leadership

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.

Leadership is More Than Inspirational Talk

It must be the start of a new school year here in the overly-large school district because we spent last Wednesday at a local college for the Leadership Conference, an annual event for all school administrators and the rest of us above a certain pay grade.

The day is sort of a kick-off pep rally at which we get inspirational talks and are told more than a few times by the Superintendent and others how we are the “premiere school system” in this country and possibly the world. The format hasn’t changed much over the years I’ve been attended and neither has the message.

Our keynote this year was delivered by Sir Ken Robinson and he was the latest in a series of high profile speakers (Daniel Pink, Tony Wagner, Alan November…) who try to explain to the crowd that the world has changed and we also need to alter the way we educate our kids.  Unfortunately, Robinson didn’t hit those points as hard as I would have liked.

Don’t get me wrong, Sir Ken gave an excellent talk, full of humor mixed with the message that we need to make education more individualized and personal, rather than standardized and generic. If you’ve ever seen either of his TED Talks or his other often-viewed presentations online, then you know many of the themes he blended for his keynote talk to our leadership.

However, one of the difficulties faced by Robinson or anyone else addressing the crowd at these events is that we are far too complacent about past successes, and far too confident that we are doing a good job of educating our students going forward. After all, we’re the “premiere school system”. How can an outsider possibly dispute that?

Although in the morning there was lots of talk about alternative learning opportunities and examples of graduates excelling in fields that don’t require a college degree (like the Superintendent’s son who is a helicopter pilot), after lunch we reverted back to the usual breakout discussions about the usual processes.  A message of change flows into the standardized, data-driven, homogenized education process we’ve become so comfortable with.

As I said, little changes from year to year at this event, including lots of talk about the need to change that directly conflicts with policies and actions that never seems to change.  In the end, it will take far more than a few hours of inspirational speeches and slides with clichés about “the 4 C’s” and “21st century skills”.

It’s going to take leadership willing to tell us that unless we are willing to make big changes very soon, we won’t be that “premiere” district much longer. Combined with the guts to actually work towards implementing the necessary alterations.

Wasted Inspiration

According to some second hand news here in the overly-large school district, Ken Robinson will be the keynote speaker next August for our annual Leadership Conference.

At first I was excited about the prospect but, after thinking about it today, I’m a little depressed.

It’s not that I don’t think Sir Ken will do a great job, or that I won’t be able to attend his talk (I may even sit in the auditorium this year instead of watching on video in the overflow room).

Actually, I’m quite sure he will give an interesting, inspirational presentation, talking about the need to transform our current education system and help our students develop their individual talents.

And most of the principals, district administrators, and other central office folks in the audience will nod in agreement and applaud in all the right places, maybe even giving Robinson a standing ovation.

Then those same principals will return to their buildings to plot new ways to get a few more kids in one of their school subgroups to pass the state standardized tests, the better to avoid falling into the NCLB failure category, while largely boring most of their students.

Their bosses, the people who booked Robinson to speak in the first place, will spend the school year pushing everyone in the district for just a few more points on the headline-grabbing numbers.

Ok, so maybe I’m just suffering from too many discussions about data and a distinct lack of anticipation as we head into testing season in which all creative teaching above 2nd grade will grind to a halt.

I’m also not naive enough to believe that one inspirational keynote (and we’ve had many over the years of this conference) will change anything by itself.

But I wonder why our district bothers to bring in speakers like Robinson, not to mention paying their not-inconsequential fees, if everyone is just going to ignore the ideas they offer.

It’s All Talk

The Innovative Educator asks: Who would you like to have speak to your colleagues about transforming education?

Based on recommendations of readers, she has assembled a good, annotated list of big thinkers on the subject, many of whom I’ve been very fortunate to have heard and even met.

A few, including Alan November, Daniel Pink and Tony Wagner, have even spoken to my colleagues, the assembled mass of school-based and district administrators at our annual Leadership Conference, about transforming education.

They were inspiring, thoughtful, forward-thinking, and presented a challenging, but realistic vision of where we should be taking public education.

And nothing changed as a result.

The superintendent and other top administrators booked the speakers, heard their message, and did nothing to lead the system in the direction they pointed.

The principals heard the message, and many agreed with the changes being proposed, but they still went back to their buildings to promote the same old instructional focus.

Many of my colleagues in central office were also in agreement with their messages, but still continued to support the same old instructional focus.

As much as I enjoy a good, inspirational keynote presentation, what good is it if few are willing to act on the message and begin the change process they say they agree with?

We have multiple long discussions about “reforming” (or even transforming) education, nationally as well as in our overly-large school district.

However, we are willing to change very little of our familiar, comfortable, traditional processes to make it happen.

It’s all talk.

Tinkering With Teaching

Today we had the Leadership Conference in our overly-large school district, the annual August gathering for all of us above a certain pay grade, designed to provide an inspirational kickoff for the new school year.

Our keynote speaker this time around was Tony Wagner from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of The Global Achievement Gap (which I haven’t read yet).

Wagner spent most of his time telling us about how our kids have changed, how the world they’ll be working in has changed, and about how educators need to change what we do in school to better serve our students.

In effect, he was telling us to radically change our curriculum, our teaching process, and so much more about what we do.

Ok, certainly a lot to think about going into lunch.

For the afternoon, however, we broke into smaller groups (if you can call 40 – 100 “smaller”) to hear about a new district program entitled Best Practices for Teaching and Learning.

Huh?

I thought Tony Wagner just told us that we need to do things differently, to adapt what we do to those different kids who are constantly connected and multitasking, and want to create and communicate.

Instead of making them adapt to the curriculum and traditional school structure (none of which is changing).

And we must prepare them for a world that wants them to be adaptable and to understand how to network and collaborate.

“Best practice”, especially as it was presented to us, is all about a recipe approach to teaching. We provide the ingredients and the teacher mixes everything according to directions.

The afternoon reminded me of a session I attended at last week’s Building Learning Communities conference with the wonderful title of “Scratch Best Practices: It’s All About The Beta, Baby!“.

Darren Kuropatwa and Clarence Fisher offered the premise that teachers should be encouraged to tinker with their professional practice.

That good teaching has more in common with Maker Faire and tinkering school than with the Betty Crocker Cookbook.

In both concepts, talented people offer instructions for putting together all kinds of unusual stuff and then help and encourage others to take their ideas and play with them to make something unique and useful to them.

Nothing in this rant is intended to say that we should just tell teachers to do whatever they want in their classrooms.

Certainly we should provide them with great examples and access to a selection of excellent materials to work with.

But not a database full of classic recipes, most of which are designed to produce a standardized, and very, very bland result.

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