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This post is a duplicate of the article in the  AASA – August 2015 School Administrator Magazine.  

The entire issue (here) is dedicated to topics related to high school sports.

A superintendent’s case for a forward-thinking approach to interscholastic athletics addressing safety, cost and the balance with academics

His first reported concussion happened in youth soccer. His second came in high school football. A possible third head injury may have happened in pro football training camp. But when a rookie 24-year-old linebacker with the San Francisco 49ers, Chris Borland, decided to retire from the NFL in March, not due to injury but rather to prevent injury, the sports world uttered a collective gasp.

Parents and players have taken notice of Borland’s story and the growth in concussion research. In my 7,500-student district, I recently received an e-mail from a parent quoting Mike Ditka, an NFL Hall of Famer and legendary Chicago Bears head coach and tight end. While that may have surprised me, the provocative words he echoed did not: “If I had a young son today, I wouldn’t let him play football.”

More than ever, superintendents are being drawn into controversies around interscholastic sports. In just the past few months, news media have reported on a superintendent who resigned following the contentious termination of a varsity basketball coach; several superintendents drawn into student-athlete disciplinary cases over alleged hazing; a superintendent challenged by her community after she disciplined a football coach for an offensive sideline tirade; a superintendent who cancelled games against another school over the rival team’s “Redskins” nickname in support of his own school’s Native American population; and several superintendents caught in the middle of school board budget debates around financial support for school athletics.

Sports and schools have been interconnected for generations. Yet the rising tide of serious challenges is raising new questions about the sustainability of interscholastic sports programs. These deal with student-athlete health risks, competitive pressures from a social media-fueled public and tough questioning around the educational value of school-based programs when public revenues are stressed. Jointly, or in isolation, these pressures could lead to a scaling back, if not disappearance, of some school sports in the coming years.

Reigning Romanticism

To an outside observer, it seems as if high school sports never have been more popular. Varsity sports are big business, with communities investing in football and basketball facilities and major sports news outlets like Bleacher Report and ESPN giving high school athletics expansive coverage.

Beyond widespread media attention, several other factors support the notion that school sports will continue to thrive. Communities have a rich history of school sports, and nostalgia runs deep in our schools, notably in smaller communities whose sole identity these days may be tied to their public schools.

Adults often romanticize their own school sports experiences — from cheering on the football team to scoring the winning goal in a soccer match or a buzzer beater in basketball. Superintendents recognize the considerable pride that comes to a school and a community when a sports team wins a regional or state championship. Movies such as Hoosiers and Rudy continue to inspire us.

And unlike in other countries, where sports facilities used by pre-collegiate students typically are not located on a school campus, gymnasiums in North America generally are an integral part of school campuses. Given the physical connection, it makes logical sense that sports such as basketball, volleyball and wrestling will continue to remain within the school domain.

Three Pressures

The challenges I see school system leaders confronting in interscholastic sports fall into three categories.

Athlete safety. Coaches and school leaders always will assert that students’ safety comes first in scholastic sports participation. But grim evidence from expanding medical research on the long-term effects of sports-related concussions indicates that brain trauma can cause permanent cognitive impairment, memory loss, depression, dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which can lead to erratic behavior and suicide.

We’re learning that it’s not just the bone-crunching body hits in football that cause injury. Successive sub-concussive blows, even in sports such as soccer, rugby, lacrosse and ice hockey, can cause as much or more brain damage. The recovery time can be longer for children and adolescents. Notably, the majority of injuries occur during practices, not in interscholastic competition. A recent study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics indicated 58 percent of reported concussions in high school football occurred in practice sessions.

Most chilling, however, is the “culture of resistance” among players to self-report concussion symptoms. According to the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, “High school athletes and those with scholarship possibilities especially will try to convince parents and coaches that they feel fine, in order to resume play.”

Other serious student safety challenges include physical harassment, sexual abuse and the ugly ritual of team hazing. These issues are forcing superintendents, like one last fall at a high school in New Jersey, to take serious measures — in that case, cancelling the school’s varsity football season in response to a hazing incident. Community and public reaction to the cancellation was mixed and only proves to demonstrate how difficult it will be to make changes to the nation’s most popular sport.

Blurring lines between school and community sports. Beyond health and safety concerns, sports themselves are changing. Basketball, volleyball and soccer, for instance, used to be school-based sports primarily. Now, it seems as if the school season is just preparing young athletes for the extended club season. The Amateur Athletics Union basketball circuits across the continent have youngsters playing dozens of games, even sometimes more than 100, during the “off season.” Colleges use the AAU programs as the go-to source for recruiting athletes, meaning parents no longer see school sports as the pathway to university athletics.

Coaching and profit motives in some community programs have professionalized youth sports and raised questions about where school-based sports fit into this new world. In the community, athletes can freely move between programs in a “free agent” environment, and coaches and sports programs can be talent collectors, while public schools hold to academic and residential eligibility rules that limit movement.

High school sports once were neatly organized into seasons that more or less matched the terms of the school year. Students could run cross country in the fall, play basketball in the winter and participate in baseball or softball in the spring. Over the last couple of decades, youngsters have been pushed into a 12-month calendar. This poses a challenge for schools that try to encourage students to play multiple sports at the same time non-school-based sports programs are stressing specialization.

The place of sports in school. One historical advantage for school sports over those in the community has been the cost of participation. In most school districts, there is no pay-to-play measure. This has changed in recent years. As school district budgets tighten, superintendents and school boards are faced with choosing whether to prioritize athletics or core classroom services.

We also are seeing the need to redirect revenue sources once targeted for athletics, such as those generated by campus vending machines and gym rental use, to support the overall operating district budget. I am faced regularly with turning down requests to financially support school sports in my district as teams rely on user fees and parent fundraising more than ever to cover costs.

While competitive sports in secondary schools engage small numbers of participants, we realize we need to find ways for all students to be active to support their physical and academic health. Given the alarming rate of youth obesity, there are concerted efforts to focus on sports that promote inclusive participation and lifelong fitness. Classes in yoga, dance and personal fitness are becoming more common in high schools and our physical education classes have decreased their attention to competitive sports while increasing their focus on lifelong fitness.

Finally, the increased emphasis on global academic competition in education challenges the place of high school sports in the future. When our nations are competing with Finland and Singapore on the international stage and the stakes for our students are rising, competitive school sports can be seen as a distraction. Do we want our great math teachers spending their nights preparing lessons or coaching basketball? (OK, the answer is probably both!) As the expectations ratchet up for educators in the classroom, it is harder to see where commitments to competitive athletics fit into the new definition of a teacher.

The Way Forward

As a school principal recently said to me, “If we were starting schools from scratch, do you really think we would include competitive sports when the community does them so well?”

This conversation really challenges me. I have coached varsity-level sports, I’ve been president of the High School Basketball Association, and I’ve seen the amazing and continuous benefits of school sports on the lives of young people. I would far rather be the superintendent cheering on the championship team than overseeing the demise of these programs — which is precisely why we need to take a serious look at competitive sports in schools moving forward.

At their core, our schools are about nurturing the brain. As I wrote in my response to the parent’s e-mail with his warning from “Iron Mike,” we need to play close attention to the evolving science of brain injury and take student safety seriously. But let’s evolve our sports rather than eliminate them.

Football needs to be different because we know better than to continue to allow head contact in the game. The heads-up tackling initiative is a step forward. Helmet-mounted impact sensors may be another. Within the next few years, concussion management training for coaches and conservative “return to play” guidelines must be standard protocol.

We need to look at whether some sports are managed better in the community and, if so, perhaps we should stop offering them in schools. In British Columbia, we offer 17 different sports for boys and girls through our schools. Working with a mix of for-profit and not-for-profit groups, all those involved in sports need to jointly support high school student-athletes and not be in perpetual competition with one another.

For me, hearing community members tell “Friday Night Lights” tales of the past offers wonderful nostalgia and history, but it is not instructive about where we need to go next. Superintendents and other forward-looking system leaders must begin to envision competitive school sports for 2035, not 1955. The challenges individually are not insurmountable, but collectively they are a daunting set of factors. While I am convinced we could do nothing and school sports would continue for a while; looking 20 years out, like many other aspects of schooling, they may have to evolve.

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writinghardwork

Every month I read the magazine School Administrator cover to cover.  Produced by the AASA – the American Superintendents’ Association it moves from big picture issues, to practical current topics to interesting slices of life from a variety of others who serve in the same role as me.   It is my go-to professional journal.  Over the last four years I have got to know its editor, Jay Goldman.  Jay has been kind enough to take some of my blog posts and turn them into columns for the magazine, and I am right now working on a piece on school sports for an issue this summer.  It is not just the relevance that draws me to the School Administrator Magazine but also the quality of writing – which goes back to the tone and standards set by the editor.

I had the chance to attend a session at the recent AASA National Conference on Education hosted by Jay Goldman and his colleague Jimmy Minichello on Publishing Professionally: Guidance for School District Leaders.  I went there to look for tips on how better to take what I am writing every week for my blog and make it something that would work in a variety of other forms.  And like many of you out there, I do have dreams of writing a book one day.  It was a great session, but the key message I took away was one not really about writing for a magazine or books or even for blogging – the message I took away was Writing is Writing.  Something that fits with a message I often share, “Good writing still matters.”

There is one particular slide that brought this message home for me:

whywrite

If anything, being a good writer seems to be more important now than ever for teachers and administrators.  And while Jay was speaking about the power of writing in the context of a magazine, this slide is a great slide to answer the question – why blog?  The goal is not bloggers, for our students or the adults in the system – it is writers for the reasons that Jay outlines.  What is true is that blogging allows the writing to be more dynamic and allows us all to be owners of our own publishing company.

In the end though, writing is still writing and all of us should take up the challenge to do more of it in our profession.

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Tools

Last week I shared Superintendency & Social Networking, a post that was also published in the AASA School Administrator Magazine.  I also wrote two smaller pieces for this most recent edition; edited versions are below.  I came back to two questions that I get asked frequently – how do you find the time and what tools should one be using.

Here are my thoughts:

Finding the Time for Social Media

The superintendency is already a completely consuming job, so how can you possibly find the time to invest in social media? These are my suggestions for those looking to add social media to their work routine.

Create manageable expectations. Whether it is a blog, Twitter or other tools, be realistic about the commitment you can make to participating in social media.

Choose a few tools and use them well. There are thousands of tools available. Select a few and develop a comfort level with them. Start with tools such as YouTube, Facebook or Twitter, all of which are heavily subscribed to by those around you.

Block out some time. As you get into a routine, schedule time each week to spend engaging in social media. It might be 15 minutes a few nights a week or some time on Sunday morning, but it needs to become part of your routine.

Decide what this will replace. As you start tweeting and blogging, decide what you won’t do and what this will replace. As you engage in social media, some of the more traditional outlets, such as reading newsletters, can be eliminated.

Embrace mobility. Be sure people know you want to be contacted, and then ensure you have access to all these tools on your mobile phone, whether it is phoning, texting, tweeting or Facebook use. You want to be mobile so you don’t have to be in the office to be at work.

Five Indispensable Tools

Blog: Consider this your home base for social media and the venue for sharing your ideas on leadership and education practices. My blog is where I share my thinking, and it serves as a great portfolio of the work that has engaged me.

Facebook: Often considered more of a personal communication tool, it remains an excellent way to connect to your community. It is still the No. 1 social media tool used by our families, so it functions as a great place to share photos from events and alert the community to upcoming events.

SlideShare: This is the place to post all of your PowerPoints so they are easily accessible to educators in your district and elsewhere. No longer do I distribute presentations by e-mail. Rather, I make them all accessible through SlideShare so others can use and share them.

Twitter: This is your avenue for connecting to your community 140 characters at a time. Twitter is a wonderful professional learning network, connecting me with colleagues from around the world.

YouTube: Short videos of your school visits or records of your speeches now can go online. The use of video is growing, and YouTube is a great place to create a repository of your work.

I know these are regular questions for many – I would love to hear other tools that people find as core, and also other strategies people use to find the time.

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Social-Network-Stock-PhotoThis post is a copy of an article in this month’s School Administrator Magazine

“When you hire me, you don’t just get me, you get my network.”

At least, that’s what I argued four years ago when I interviewed for the superintendency.

An hour prior to the start of the interview with the board of education trustees, I was given a question. And without hesitation, I was on my computer sharing the question on Twitter.

Over the next several minutes, I fielded a dozen responses from my network. There were a few quotable quotes, some links to helpful research on the Internet and a couple of “good luck” wishes. I took their thinking, blended it with my own and put together a presentation. Although the school board might have been curious about what I thought, I figured they were probably more interested in knowing I could find the best thinking, synthesize the ideas, contextualize them for our location and then share them in a thoughtful way — all in a timely manner.

Had I attempted this just a year prior, I may have been asked to leave the interview, or even been accused of cheating. It shows how quickly our world is shifting — what might have been considered disingenuous or even cheating a decade ago is now considered effective professional networking.

Since that interview, I have only become more reliant on my network, both in the face-to-face form and in the digital world.

The Network’s Power
The value of a strong network is nothing new, and social media serves to extend the reach of that network. Now, more than ever, it is not just what you know but who you know.

Traditionally, our personal and professional networks included the people with whom we went to high school or college or with whom we work and engage on a daily basis. These networks now extend globally. Social media allows us to build diverse networks with those in similar roles, across different segments of the community that have an interest in education. We not only get to connect with those we agree with but build a network that transcends the echo chamber we sometimes can detect in our daily connections.

Certainly, traditional structures where we gather in role-alike groups still exist — there are sessions for teachers, administrators, support staff, parents and the community, and sometimes we bring these groups together. Online, the roles tend to blur, and it is the ideas that become the focus, with the most current thinking and range of views. Tremendous power is available in being able to ask a question and engage so many in the answer.

District leaders can (and do) build networks across North America to learn from and with educators, such as Michael Smith, superintendent in Tuscola, Ill.; Pam Moran, superintendent in Albemarle County, Va.; Patrick Larkin, assistant superintendent in Burlington, Mass.; and the hundreds of other district leaders who publicly share their ideas through social media.

Model the Way
We are continually encouraging our teachers and students to embrace digital tools. Leaders have a role to play in modeling their use, as well. We want students to take the risks in their learning and not to be afraid to make a mistake. Increasingly, we want them to engage with the real world, to own their learning and to create content for the digital world. We can help by modeling all of this.

True, social media can be daunting for school district leaders — the technology is new, and there are many waiting to pounce on any misstatement. This, though, is the world we want our kids to participate in.

What we can do is model the integrity, honesty, compassion and care in this space that we would want all others in our community to show. Our blogs as superintendents can lead to principals blogging, to teachers blogging and to students blogging. Our participation can model for others in our organization the power of the tools and also serve as the example for others to follow. Our participation does model the engagement we want for our communities in the serious issues of teaching and learning and does so in a respectful and appreciative way. District leaders can move (and model) beyond talking about it and start being about it.

Admittedly, I find blogging scary. I do it every week, but every time I hit “publish,” I worry I may have committed a spelling mistake for the world to see or said something that will be misconstrued or gotten my facts blatantly wrong. I have been in schools as a student and educator for about 35 years; I can only imagine the stress students must sometimes feel when they put themselves out there publicly — and it is also good for me to understand this.

Real and Connected
The superintendency often is seen as a role disengaged and detached from the reality of classrooms and schools. Social media can change that perception.

I clearly recall one angry parent who came to see me with a concern about a decision made about his child at one of our elementary schools. He explained his situation and ended by saying, “And I trust your opinion on this. I have read your blog and know you have four kids in school, so you obviously understand what it is like to be a parent.” In a way, my blog validated my credibility, not because of anything I had said, but because it helped to make me more real.

Social media engagement also allows leaders to keep tabs on what is being said in the community and elsewhere about your school or district. One can follow students, teachers, parents, media, politicians and others and then engage with them. Often, what is in the newspaper tomorrow or the day after is being discussed on social media today. The community wants to know what the superintendent thinks, and blogging lets us do this on our own terms.

Our Own Words
There are many people who are happy to provide a version of what the superintendent thinks and says. The local news media often paraphrase the remarks of the superintendent, as do union leaders and others in the community. Social media allows us a platform to connect directly with the community to tell our story. Instead of lamenting that our stories are not told factually and fully and that the only news reported is bad news, we can change that — by telling our own stories through social media.

The proliferation of social media had led to more public gossiping than ever. By the same token, the use of social media can help us reach our community unfiltered. I know my blog posts — typically two to four a month — influence the watercooler conversations in our schools. When I wanted our district to engage in a conversation about final exams, a blog post on the topic laying out some of the positives and negatives helped guide the conversation.

The profile and political nature of our job and the relationship with the school board and government officials all can give pause. I am careful and clear about the areas I discuss in social media and those I don’t. My focus is on teaching and learning. While I spend time discussing budgets and labour contracts with our board, those are issues for them to speak about publicly.

While others will gladly say what we believe if we let them, social media does help break down some of the traditional barricades to reaching the people we want to teach. It also can humanize us and allow us to share our thoughts and stories in our own words.

Professional Benefits
Professional learning and development for educators used to be scarce. Educators depended on monthly magazines, professional journals and occasional conferences. Now phenomenal resources are available just one or two clicks away.

While school districts’ physical boundaries remain well-defined, when it comes to professional learning, the district geography is blurry and becoming ever-less important. We are finding ways to connect and engage online that have little to do with geography. And just what can you find online? Without question, another superintendent in another school district is wrestling with the same issues you are dealing with.

My digital professional network has enhanced my face-to-face network. At last year’s AASA National Conference on Education, I connected with many colleagues I had known only digitally until then. I have found a common trend that I connect with people online and then meet them and then continue online — the combination of both digital and face-to-face connections has made these relationships far stronger than those I know exclusively online or in person.

Through Twitter and blogs, I have discovered we can connect with others in the field, solve problems, and open ourselves up to new ideas and learning.

Doors to Opportunity
Social media opens up opportunities. It gives space to highlight the work in our school districts. Each week I am sharing the best practices and programs I see in our schools — from teachers using inquiry, to students being able to self-regulate to maximize learning, to schools using digital devices. And then we can connect this work across the district and around the world.

Being engaged also opens up personal opportunities — from speaking and consulting opportunities to first insight on job openings. Social media means you have the power of your network to bring to any future job.

Anyone who sees participation in social media as another demand on an already full schedule hasn’t yet discovered the power that participation can have. None of us is truly too busy to blog, tweet or otherwise engage in social media. If we aren’t doing it, we just haven’t yet realized why it should be a priority.

West Vancouver is a school district of just over 7,000 students in British Columbia, Canada. But through involvement and engagement of our staff in social media, we are known around the world.

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familydinner-1

This is an updated version of a previous post and is published in the May 2013 Issue of School Administrator.

The struggle to find balance between home life and the superintendency — the focus of School Administrator’s November 2012 issue — resonated with me and I am sure with many others who have very public positions in education. Just a few days earlier, I had come across on CNN’s website Michael Takiff’s column “Why Doesn’t Obama Like to Schmooze?” which addressed the challenges a U.S. president faces in balancing his highly public life with his more private family life.

Though on vastly different levels, the parallels are astounding.

In sharp contrast to former President Bill Clinton, who often spent evenings relentlessly connecting with financiers and lawmakers, Takiff points out that Obama works equally hard at being president but at the same time makes every effort to have a balanced family life. To quote from Takiff’s column: “[W]hile he is America’s only president, he is also his daughters’ only father; his duty to them demands that he take time out from his duty to his country. And so he makes sure that at 6:30 each evening he’s seated at the family dinner table. After the meal, he helps his daughters with their homework.”

Changing Rules

Takiff’s profile of Obama struck a chord because I am questioning if parenting is generation-oriented. Does parenthood differ today from that of previous generations? And how is technology affecting the paradigms of traditional work ethics?

Today, it is no longer a point of honour to be the first car in the office parking lot in the morning or the last one to leave at night. That was for many (and still is for some) an expression of hard work, but technology has made it possible to log work hours from a location of our choosing. Certainly, some aspects of my job require that I be present at my office and that I spend face time with others. But I can carry out other duties on my own, in the office, at home, in the evening or at first light of morning.

Since becoming a parent more than a decade ago (and now as the father of four), the first question I always ask when considering a job opportunity — before salary, before potential prospects, before anything else — is this: “What do the evening commitments look like?” Because, like President Obama, I am not interested in being an absentee parent. I am happy doing the work online late into the night and picking it up early the next day. But I want to reserve a window of time between 6 and 9 o’clock at night to engage with my kids on a regular basis.

Now in my third year as a superintendent, I do find the position is what one makes of it, and there are so many ways to do it right. Some superintendents are masters of the community, attending every community function. While this is important, one still needs to pick and choose how to spend one’s time. My focus tends to be about “getting the learning right” in the classrooms, and classrooms sometimes have been a priority over community. I realize what I attend speaks to what I say is important, so these decisions always are made carefully.

Family Friendly

If the president of the United States has figured out a way to be home most evenings by 6:30 to join his family, surely I (and those who work with me and have jobs like mine) can find new ways to be home for dinner a couple of nights a week. It is about choices and priorities.

To the credit of those I am working with in West Vancouver, British Columbia, from staff member to trustees, we are experimenting with more online meetings and looking at doing more of the face-to-face meetings during daytime hours. The six members of our district leadership team all have children in the K-12 system now, so this issue is relevant for all of us. We also have a governing board that is committed to modeling family-friendly values in the workplace.

So if the president can dine with his family most nights, that’s certainly good enough for me to aspire to.

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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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This is an updated version of a previous post and is published in the September 2012 Issue of School Administrator.

It’s impossible to attend an education event today without someone on stage passionately calling out for more innovation. It’s probably the most widely used word in my blog posts as well.

Discussions about innovation permeate much of what I have been addressing in our school district. The innovation label applies to all manner of things — ideas, methods, programs — and pretty much anything that differs from current practice.

Yet the challenge is that, for every new program we add to the K-12 system, we also must shed an existing program. As it is, the general public and the educators point out that we are trying to do too much, to cover too much ground. In many U.S. jurisdictions and in British Columbia where I reside, in order to provide a competitive slate, we try to meet the expectations of parents by offering a curriculum jammed full of options. At the same time, we struggle to address the standards established by our ministries of education. Putting the two together, we create a curriculum too full, one bursting at the seams.

Unfortunately, we are better at initiating programs than we are at ending them, even when they have outgrown their usefulness.

The Test of Time
In the resulting litmus test, it has become apparent that some ideas, interventions, courses or programs have a shelf life after which effectiveness disintegrates. The world is constantly changing, and we need to reflect that process of ongoing change in all that we do.

This is particularly true of initiatives intended to encourage the use of technology and digital literacy. I’ve watched a steady evolution away from the “learning with technology” approach toward a broad-based integration of information technologies into our learning systems. We no longer need to teach K-12 students  how to use computers, but we find our curricula so overburdened that it is difficult to make room for programs that would encourage that integration.

The problem is that we are much better at starting initiatives than ending them. Even when existing programs no longer connect with students, we often protect them because our investment of resources, in one way or another, into some of these programs dissuades us from abandoning them. On the other hand, holding on to these programs limits the development of new programs and learning experiences for students.

It’s something of a Catch 22 because we know new innovations need time to take root and grow. We have tried running all the courses from the previous year along with the new ones proposed (to the same students), but sign-up is fragmented, and many courses are cancelled because they haven’t had the opportunity to develop.

The Solution?
So what’s the answer? Well, I believe we need to take a cue from the private
sector, which fully understands that it is necessary to let go of the old and make room for the new. When innovations no longer work, they are abandoned, or the company goes under. The concept provides us with a direction forward.

A case in point: Diane Nelson, who nurtures our school district’s sports academy programs, proposed and launched a field hockey academy.
It didn’t work out; so, instead of trying to force the field hockey academy to work, she dropped the idea and now has started a baseball academy, which drew sufficiently high registration to launch this fall. She knew to walk away from one and to reinvest in another, continuing the search to find programs to
meet the needs of our students and their families.

When someone says that our kids should be doing more “X,” it is usually
difficult to disagree, whether that might be financial literacy, cross-curricular
experiences, physical activity, workplace experience, self-directed
inquiry or some other wonderful, innovative program. To keep on adding
“X” will eventually work against us, covering more superficially, and preventing students from digging deeper in their learning.

When courses disappear or school rituals retire, it should not be seen
as negative. It represents progress. Many ideas have a shelf life. So, while
we are really good at celebrating all the new notions in education today,
we shouldn’t be shy about acknowledging the need to cull innovations
along the way.

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