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May 2012

Read my take on "districts of innovation" in today's Lexington Herald-Leader

A few weeks ago I wrote posts here and here on House Bill 37, passed by the Kentucky General Assembly this year, which gives schools and districts the opportunity to apply for "innovation" status.  These districts would theoretically be given more freedom from onerous regulations so they can innovate creative new approaches to instruction and the structure of schooling. 

A version of one of my blog posts appears in today's Lexington Herald-Leader, where I argue that while HB 37 may have its merits, schools already have broad leeway to "innovate," and at any rate, the law does not serve as a viable alternative to charter schools as its proponents suggest.  You can read the whole thing here.

Yes, Gatton is different, but there are still important things to learn from "The Best High School in America"

There has been great celebration in the Western Kentucky University community since Newseek recognized the Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science as the "Best High School in America."  Founded in 2007, Gatton selectively serves the top-performing juniors and seniors from around the state and immerses them in a residential early-college program that has high school students working alongside university mathematicians and scientists conducting high-quality, real-world scientific experiments and research right on WKU's campus.

It's an impressive program, but unsurprisingly within a matter of days a number of people (including many from the education community) began dismissing the recognition, arguing that because of its ability to select only the best and brightest, it's totally unfair to group Gatton alongside traditional high schools.  Gabe Bullard, who reports on education for Louisville's WFPL public radio, pointed out that Gatton's students have much higher ACT scores and GPA's than the average student and that the state spends substantially more per pupil on Gatton students than others.  Bullard concludes that Gatton's success couldn't reasonably be replicated elsewhere.

There is truth to this argument.  Even the Newsweek story profiling the school recognizes that, to call Gatton a high school, "you'd have to suspend an element of reality."  The story also says that "Gatton's administrators admit it's not a model for every school."

All of this may be true, but I would argue that despite its significant differences, traditional schools still have a lot to learn from Gatton. 

What really distinguishes the Gatton Academy, besides the obvious, is its willingness to break the mold of what the high school experience should be.  Gatton students are highly self directed, carrying out large-scale, long-term projects largely of their own choosing.  Their activities involve close work right beside instructors with whom they build close personal relationships.  Their work is meaningful and relevant, not only to their future aspirations, but to the world at large.

And while it's clearly easier to create this kind of learning environment with highly-motivated kids and ample funding, there is evidence that schools can, in fact, replicate aspects of the Gatton experience even when students come from seriously disadvantaged backgrounds.

Alongside their "Best High Schools" list, Newsweek featured another listing of the nation's "Top 25 Transformative High Schools."  These schools serve students in high-poverty communities, do not have admissions requirements like Gatton, and get impressive results.

Consider, for example, The Science Academy of South Texas, ranked 33rd on Newsweek's overall list of best schools.  More than half of SAST students receive free or reduced-price lunch, yet 100 percent of its graduates attend college, often at prestigious universities, and post an average ACT score of about 25.  The Science Academy works in close partnership with a number of area universities and mimics key features of the Gatton Academy's "early college" approach.

Schools like The Science Academy of South Texas get results in part because they are willing to challenge the traditional model of the American high school wherein all students receive a largely low-rigor curriculum fragmented by subject area and marked by lots of passive learning.  

To their credit, traditional high schools are not well-structured to differentiate student learning at this level.  Considering the basic structure of high schools hasn't changed in nearly 100 years, educators do get amazing results.  Our schools were never designed to accomodate the historically-recent mandate that every child must reach proficiency.

But this failure of the high school structure illustrates what's truly different about the Gatton Academy, the Science Academy of South Texas, and other high performing schools. 

Teachers, administrators, parents and students in these schools are committed to rethinking their expectations of what high school should be about, and are willing to change the very structures of schooling itself to put the student at the center.

Such a commitment overcomes the barriers of poverty and often low-student motivation that are frequently used as explanations for poor school achievement.  With such a commitment to innovation and student-centered learning, many more schools, including schools that serve diverse populations, could give Gatton Academy a run for its title.

The ritual hazing of assistant principals

I'm pleased to share that one of my previous blog posts will appear as an article in an upcoming issue of School Administrator magazine.

Slated for publication in the August 2012 [Update: now scheduled for October 2012] issue, the article reports on research completed by Denise Armstrong at Brock University and reported in Teachers College Record. Armstrong's study examined the rites of passage of teachers who moved into the role of assistant principal.  She found that most assistant principals experience a grueling and demoralizing transition, and while by their third year most AP's find a balance and rhythm to their job, the idealism that inspired their move into school leadership had greatly diminished.

I argue that principals and superintendents need to learn from research like Armstrong's and craft better transition supports for new assistant principals, since many aspire to lead schools as principals someday.  The quality of their experiences as AP's will greatly shape they way they will lead later on. 

School Administrator magazine is published by the American Association of School Administrators and goes to every superintendent in the United States.  I'll share more information when the article is published.  Read the original post here.

News and resources roundup: New draft science standards released, KY flip-flops on reading accomodations, more

A roundup of recent education news and resources:

  • After ruling last year that special education students would no longer be allowed to have the assistance of a reader as an accomodation on reading comprehension tests, the Kentucky Board of Education has now reversed itself and will allow readers if parents request an exemption.  The rationale behind this flip-flop is unclear.
  • The first draft of Common Core science standards have been released.  Let the arguments begin.
  • Research using international comparisons shows that the U.S. does not lag behind leading countries in this regard - and that differences in instructional time don't matter anyway.  It all comes down to what happens between the bells, not how much time there is in between.  High school leaders who continue bickering over block vs. modified block vs. traditional vs. trimester schedules, take note.
  • Would aspiring principals be better off getting an MBA than going through a traditional principal preparation program?
  • I love the concept of professional coaching.  Here's a case study from the latest issue of JSD [Journal of Staff Development] describing how schools in North Carolina used teacher coaching to build a common instructional language.

WKU summer classes are underway.  Encourage aspiring administrators to consider applying for our revised principal preparation program (Rank I only).  All existing principal prep students must complete coursework by December 2013.

Nominate an outstanding school leader for KASA's Administrator of the Year Award

The Kentucky Association of School Administrators (KASA) recognizes an oustanding school leader each year at its annual Summer Institute, which will be held July 18-20 in Louisville.  Nominees must be an active KASA member for at least two consecutive years, including the school year now ending.  One award is given for outstanding building-level leader and another for outstanding district-level leader.

To recognize a great Kentucky school administrator, click here for more information.  If you are not already a member of KASA, I encourage all practicing and aspiring school leaders to join.

Training and supporting strong school principals

A great article appeared in this week's edition of Education Week summarizing the importance of the school principal in student learning and arguing for more thoughtful policies on how principals are trained, supported, and compensated.  The author's arguments are worth the consideration of practicing administrators, state policy-makers, and folks like me who train aspiring school leaders.

The commentary, called "The Promise of a Strong Principal," is by Kerri Briggs, Jacquelyn Davis, and Gretchen Rhines Cheney, all of whom are affiliated with the George W. Bush Institute's Alliance to Reform Educational Leadership, which is heavily invested in promoting alternative approaches to thinking about the work of school leaders.  The article reflects some of the Alliance's key priorities.

Some compelling points the authors bring out:

  • Research is clear that teachers are the most powerful determinant of student outcomes, but the role of the principal, especially in ensuring teacher quality and professional growth, is also a proven variable.
  • Half of all principals leave their jobs within the first five years, most within the first three years.
  • Principal preparation programs have long been criticized for not adequately preparing aspiring school leaders for the demands of the job.  Nearly two-thirds of all practicing principals say their training was insufficient.

I've argued elsewhere that no professional education program can fully prepare educators for the constantly-shifting realities of work in the field, and that university programs excel most at training aspiring administrators to think like leaders and preparing them for the kinds of critical thinking and self-reflection required to address complex, emerging problems. 

But the authors of this commentary have a point and I believe principal training programs must become far more creative in delivering their services.  Recent changes in Kentucky's policies for principal certification are a step in the right direction, but further innovation is required to provide a seamless, career-long structure of training and support for assisting principals in become true instructional leaders.  Briggs and colleagues acknowledge as much in their Education Week commentary:

We need to take a multifaceted approach that starts with a comprehensive review of the various policies, systems, and processes that span the continuum of a principal's career. This continuum includes preparation, certification, induction, ongoing professional development, evaluation, compensation, promotion, and licensure renewal. Some of these issues reside at the state level, others at the district or preparation-program level. The George W. Bush Institute, together with the Council of Chief State School Officers, is beginning this work by launching a first-of-its-kind endeavor to collect data on state policies affecting school leaders. We want to bring to light the importance of creating and sustaining a system of cohesive education leadership policies that work on behalf of principals who are responsible for attracting and retaining teacher talent and driving the improvement of student learning.

I'm always suspicious of any top-down policy approaches designed to fix problems like principal training and support, but these authors are to be commended for raising important questions and pointing the way toward changes that might have lasting, positive effects for students.

Innovation mostly takes bold leadership

Earlier this week I wrote about HB 37, Kentucky's new "districts of innovation" law, which would allow schools (on a 70 percent vote of the faculty) to apply for innovation status, freeing them of yet-to-be-determined regulations so the school can be more creative and flexible with its delivery of learning.

In my previous post I argued that, while the law may have merits, it does not serve as a meaningful substitute for charter schools.   Another point worth noting, I think, is that for many educational "innovations," HB 37 may be totally unnecessary.

The Eminence Independent school district recently garnered headlines for its plans to provide free laptops to high school students and change the school schedule to allow students to attend Bellarmine University for free classes two days a week, among other changes.  The report suggested that Eminence could become the first "district of innovation" under the new law.

But all of the innovations Eminence has in mind are currently legal under Kentucky law.  Any school or district could pursue such changes.  What distinguishes Eminence is the bold leadership of Superintendent Buddy Berry and other district administrators and a teaching staff willing to try something out-of-the-box on behalf of student learning.

In his forthcoming book, Cage-Busting Leadership, American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess makes the same argument:

It is true, as would-be reformers often argue, that statutes, policies, rules, regulations, contracts, and case law make it tougher than it should be for school and system leaders to drive improvement and, well, lead. At the same time, however, it is also true that these leaders have far more freedom to transform, reimagine, and invigorate teaching, learning, and schooling than is widely believed.

In my experience, most school "reform" efforts involve tinkering with add-0n programs, interventions, or new technologies, while everyday instruction (and the school schedule) remains largely the same.   But it doesn't take an act of Congress (or the Kentucky General Assembly) to bust out of that cage of habit.  It takes courageous, visionary leadership, richly informed by an understanding of effective teaching practices and relentlessly committed to steering the organization toward a unified purpose

The education industry in Kentucky may indeed be burdened with a surplus of rules and regulations.  But we're also burden with a dearth of bold leadership, and changes like HB 37 are unlikely to make much difference in that regard.