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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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In January, just as I assumed the role of Superintendent, I wrote about my efforts to be transparent in my work.  That post led to a column in this month’s The School Administrator Magazine from the American Association of School Administrators.

Below is the updated post (linked here) as presented in the magazine:

Making Transparency Concrete

by CHRIS J. KENNEDY

Transparency has become an overused mantra in the workplace, and in the public sector, in particular, leaders have faced an increased demand for transparent thinking and actions.

In my role as superintendent of a 7,200-student school district, transparency is about promoting accountability and accessibility, providing timely information for students, staff and parents about what their school district is doing. Essentially, it demystifies the work of schools and school districts.

Most people in our community have a clear idea of what teachers do, but there is much less understanding of what teacher-librarians, learning assistance teachers, school administrators, district staff and board trustees do.

Evolving Strategies
My goal around transparency is to help bring greater understanding of these important roles and of the full scope of the work we do in our school district. I have been overt in developing an evolving list of strategies to promote transparency, including these:

•  Offering the community multiple channels of communication. This includes traditional methods such as letters and telephone calls, as well as new methods such as social media and text messaging.

•  Distributing my contact information. Many were surprised when as a newly minted superintendent I gave this out to everyone. This information is printed on my business card; it is posted on my blog and on our district website. I don’t want anyone to ever say they don’t know how to reach me. Of course, sharing my contact information does not negate process, but it sets a tone and model for the organization.

•  Building a relationship with traditional and new media. It is often said education is poorly treated by the news media. We can change that by transforming complaining into engaging. This includes both traditional print media and new media. Dismissing edu-bloggers as “not influential” would be a huge mistake.

•  Sharing my cell phone number. Fifteen years ago, when teachers were first being set up with e-mail addresses at my school, I recall some staff were adamant about keeping their e-mail addresses private. They considered these to be private accounts, and they would only share their e-mail address on their terms. This was and is ludicrous because a school district address is not a private account. It is a corporate e-mail address, and our work is communicating with the community.

My cell phone also is provided by the school district, and it is my work phone. So I don’t really get the idea of not giving out this number. I can always choose whether to answer the phone, and I would much rather have people find me on a mobile number.

•  Recognizing my calendar is not a secret. I do have some confidential appointments on my calendar, and they are labeled as such, but I am open to sharing my calendar with anyone who is interested. I know most people in the school district, let alone the community, have only a limited sense of the work I do. The more people who understand the work, the greater the appreciation of the work.

•  Creating personal and corporate identities. It is important that we balance our personal identities in the context of our district identities. I am mindful of the separation between my own identity and that of my role in the district, but they are also closely connected. I allow our communications officer to manage all our corporate social media conversations.

•  Holding meetings at schools. Whenever a teacher or administrator wants to meet, I do my best to connect at their school and not in my office. While this is not always possible, most of our schools are within 10 minutes of the central office. As well, I often use these out-of-office meetings as an excuse to visit at least a couple of classrooms — it gives me a better sense of the tone in the school. The more I can connect as a “real person,” the better.

•  Sharing a bit about my life. I have four children; the oldest two are in school. They attend public schools. I have a personal interest in a great public school system in British Columbia. This is a careful balance, but we have public jobs, and people appreciate knowing some of the things in life, beyond the job, that drive us. I want to be personable, without crossing the boundaries of sharing too much that is personal.

•  Telling my story in my words. I blog for many reasons, and one of them is that I can share my messages unfiltered. I don’t have to worry about being misquoted or hope others will share ideas in a timely way. My blog allows me to connect in real time to the community. It is also a place for discussion and dialogue.

•  Thinking twice whether something needs to be on e-mail. Rather than sending e-mails with information to groups of people, if there is an appropriate place to post the information publicly and share the link with those who would be most interested, I prefer to do this. I use SlideShare to post PowerPoint presentations publicly rather than e-mailing the presentations to those interested. I am amazed how many times people have stumbled on information I have posted publicly and really appreciated the content.

I have said transparency will be a key aspect of everything I do, as will regularly asking questions such as “How could we do this in a more public and engaging way?” There is a lot to do, and this list will continue to evolve — in a public context, of course.

Chris Kennedy is superintendent in West Vancouver, British Columbia. He blogs at http://cultureofyes.ca and tweets at @chrkennedy. E-mail: ckennedy@sd45.bc.ca

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