Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Learning from Leaders: My Takeaways

By invitation, I had the opportunity the past two days to meet up with a variety of educational leaders from around the country at Education Week's Leaders to Learn From forum in Washington, DC. As part of the event, sixteen leaders were profiled by Education Week and each provided us with snippets of innovative, yet practical, strategies deployed within their own districts that have led or are leading to higher student achievement.

While we were provided advance information on each of the sixteen, as well as the other leaders who would be attending, the format of the forum limited any in-depth contact to just a few. This post provides a cursory summary of what I learned as well as my thoughts on each point.

School districts like mine have to work hard to overcome the obstacles that surround students growing up in poverty or with limited English proficiency. While we would all like our elected leaders and communities to do more about these two significant problems, including providing much-needed funding for programming and staffing that mitigates these circumstances, the fact remains that the knight on the white horse is not coming. We can't use that as an excuse and have to immerse ourselves in helping kids learn despite the inequities.

An extended learning day for all students, but in particular elementary students, is needed to overcome the effects of poverty and limited English proficiency. Our students attend school for 6.5 hours per day but data from a number of schools demonstrates that an 8-hour school day can elevate learning. The additional time should be devoted to subjects that turn kids on to school, raise their level of engagement, and make them feel good about what they are doing. These can be music, art, physical education or other elective subjects. It should be for all students within the school and complement the core academic learning during the regular hours of the day.

Superintendents and principals must engage in transparent leadership, working hard to develop strong, collaborative relationships with teacher and staff labor associations. This has to go beyond the traditional meetings where problems are simply talked about to actual strategic planning and collaboration on what will work to turn a school or district around, create a learning culture, and elevate academic achievement.

Teacher leaders have to be drawn out of their respective classrooms and help take ownership of the schools and district. That leadership has to be horizontal in nature working in collaboration with the principal to raise all boats so that every student benefits from quality teaching and learning, not just the ones in a handful of classrooms where the doors are always closed. It is clear from the evidence that until teachers are engaged and take ownership for school-wide results, substantive improvement cannot be realized.

In the same way, we are not going to move public education forward in general unless more principals and superintendents take greater responsibility for helping schools and districts improve across the state. There are two benefits from this. First, cross-pollination of what works and accountability for what is not working can only help our public education system serve the needs of all kids, not just the ones sharing the same zip code as your school. And second, doing so invariably exposes the principal or superintendent to new ideas and greater evidence to support what works. In a sense, then, school leaders involved in county or state-wide improvement efforts are actually engaged in valuable professional learning. This will pay dividends for the employing district and school.

The last point is one I personally feel is most valuable -- and least practiced in my district: student voice. Students who are listened to and involved in school-wide problem-solving, strategic planning and decision-making are going to have a greater feeling of ownership and engagement in their respective schools -- and the district as well. At a minimum, every school should have a viable student council involved in helping leaders create a positive school climate and culture, and lend student voice to the change process. The superintendent should meet periodically with each student council and possibly even create a district-level council including representatives from each grade level. Members of the student council should be welcomed from time to time into meetings with teachers to give their responses to prompts such as:

  • "What do you think makes a great teacher?"
  • "How do you like to use technology?"
Teachers should also be allowed (encouraged) to ask the students questions, and students should feel comfortable asking the teachers questions, as well. Other ways of providing student voice include surveys and focus groups. The culture of the school should support this type of dialogue by giving value to input from students.

I look forward to expanding on each of these points and having conversations with staff, students and parents as to how we can incorporate these ideas to provide even better learning opportunities for our kids.