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Archive for March, 2013

I find one of my important jobs is getting the ‘tension’ right between schools and the district. Tension is often a word with negative connotations, but it provides a necessary balance throughout the system. People look at me questioningly when I acknowledge and even encourage healthy tension between competing interests (but we are all teammates in the bigger picture).  At each hierarchical level, whether provincial government, school district, school or classroom, there needs to be autonomy to be innovative and creative to meet specific needs. But, the work must be connected because we are more than a collection of independent contractors and a sum of ideas. I described some of this in a previous post on flexibility.

When faced with a topic or issue, I regularly consider if something is primarily a school focus or a district decision.  There are many issues that districts should simply stay out of, and leave to schools who are more nimble and quicker to make changes as required.  Further, for new initiatives to take hold, they often come from passionate teachers, schools or communities and not from a district decree.

Schools tend to look at issues through the lens of the school first and foremost; a district takes a more global view of the school district as a whole and, as a district leader, this is the perspective I take, for example, when a school wants to start a new program.  The case is often made “how it is right for the community,” and I then take into consideration the impact the new program would have on other schools and the district as a whole. Some programs that have been suggested would have done very well, but would have also moved student populations and emptied out other schools — good for the school but bad for the district.  It is also very easy in a district job to think we know best and make more decisions centrally (but we would NEVER want the provincial government to do that with school districts).  There are other times where the district can help transform a community by suggesting the consideration of a new program.  The placement of programs like French Immersion, for example, are often crucial ones for a district to make as they look at the larger view of community interests and population trends.

As a principal, the ‘tension’ was in wanting to be encouraging of innovation, but also wanting to ensure, as a school, we were moving in a common direction.  As a district leader, the ‘tension’ is more in trying to set direction for the district but giving the freedom and flexibility to schools to each have their own “signature” one that is informed but rarely prescribed by the District.

I will often talk about our commitment to inquiry, self-regulation, social-emotional learning and digital literacy.  And, at each school, these ideas will take on different shapes and direction. I use this blog and other opportunities to engage, discuss and draw connections between the different approaches to the same larger goals.  All our schools develop their own narrative, but they are part of a bigger story.  Similarly, I feel that our district is part of a larger provincial story – one of a highly achieving system looking towards where it needs to go next.

I have often heard teachers and administrators say of their districts “I don’t know where we are going.” Hopefully, I am finding ways to be clear about where we are going, but not prescribing a single narrow path to get there. I will continue to consider whether we are getting the ‘tension’ right.

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canada&us_flag

I recently had the opportunity to attend and present at U.S. National Conference on Education hosted by the American School Superintendent’s Association (AASA).  The presentation I shared was  similar to the presentations given in BC: Social Media – How District Leaders Can Build Community. My focus here was on how important it is for leaders to not just talk about digital learning, but to model it in their own work and learning.

If the conference’s Twitter feed was any indication, I get the sense there are far fewer US school and district leaders engaged on the social media front than we are seeing in BC and across Canada. While Canadians probably made up less than five per cent in attendance, you wouldn’t have thought that from who was engaging digitally.

Of course, there is far more to connect about than social media. I was interested to connect with my American superintendent colleagues and compare the work we do north and south of the border. I found we have a lot in common in sharing the important role of working with elected Boards, a focus on 21st century learning, and we are always searching for the balance in our work and personal lives. What made the event most interesting was to realize where our jobs, and how our conversations differed:

Football

Okay, not just football, but school sports in general. For many, this is very connected to the identity of the school district, something we don’t see with the same passion in Canada. I spoke with several superintendents who described several situations—including pressure from their Boards—to have high achieving sports teams and who should make the team and play in the games. Some situations from the playing field regularly came forward to the superintendent level for comment. While attending a session on legal issues affecting school districts, there was an interesting discussion on whether school sports were a right or a privilege. It was a very different opinion than the Canadian one where sports are seen largely as extracurricular and coaches are volunteers.

High Test Results

In BC and Canada more generally, we are spending less and less time focussing (or obsessing) on test scores. I often say we are moving to a post-standardized world. We have no high stakes tests and, while we use data, it is often teacher-generated data. In contrast, it was interesting to learn that superintendents use test results around teacher evaluations and test results also drive some funding allotments.

Safety

Yes, we talk safety, but not with the same intensity as it is currently being discussed in the United States. For example, many superintendents acknowledge the importance of school security guards.  It is something not really discussed in British Columbia. At a district board meeting this past month I reconfirmed (under advice from local police) our practice will be to continue to keep all school exterior doors unlocked. Many of my American colleagues were making different decisions.

Turnover

We have some turnover in superintendents in Canada, but job terminations are very rare. In contrast, there was a much greater sense from my US colleagues that being a superintendent was much like being a professional sports coach—often on two- or three-year contracts and ready to be free agents if “things just didn’t work out.” It does make me wonder how one can move an agenda forward with such regular turnover. It did seem some districts really valued stability over change, but that did not seem to be the norm, particularly in larger urban centres.

Money

Yes, we all talk money, but funding is provincial not local; a formula in BC is used to fund all 60 districts. In speaking with many of my colleagues, there can be wide gaps in funding in neighbouring committees, a particular challenge BC does not have to deal with. And, despite my best efforts to fully understand the US school funding model, I actually still don’t.  There is also federal money that flows through to districts (again something we don’t have in Canada); there is also local monies based on taxation, and often a lot of grant monies (something far less common in Canada). Of course, the larger topic of adequate and stable funding is universal, and the conversations around inadequate funding and its effect on public education are the same conversations we are having in British Columbia.

However, one concern is common across both the Canadian and US perspective – great value on a strong and vibrant public education system. It was interesting to see below the headlines where our stories matched and where they differed. My thanks to all those who welcomed me and made me feel so connected.

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