Internationally, Education & Superintendents Must be Champions for Children

A guest post by AASA Past President Amy Sichel

Whether you are in Scotland or in the U.S., the educational systems have many similarities. They include regulations, funding, hiring, teacher shortages, and the effects these issues have on teaching, learning, and ultimately student achievement. Traditional teaching and innovation are dispersed throughout Scotland as is the use of technology—quite similar to the diversity in educational approaches in our schools. We visited some very creative and personalized classrooms where students were actively engaged.

We had an opportunity to view private schools that were the very best that money can buy. We also viewed government schools that were not as fortunate. In many cases, however, the schools with limited funding still produced amazing results. We saw, as we see at home, that funding and resources can be critical in leveling the playing field.

In the end, the key is to do what is best for every student. Meeting the needs of the underserved, narrowing achievement gaps, working with 21st century skills and personalizing instruction are all topics we face and struggle to address. Both countries strive to prepare students for careers and higher education.

Wherever we travel throughout the globe, it is apparent that kids are kids. They deserve the best education that we can deliver. We always conclude that we need to maintain our focus. That education must meet the needs of children so that they graduate from high school prepared to be successful contributors to our ever-changing world. As America’s superintendents and educators, we need to continue to be the champions for public education and be the voices of our students!


Amy Sichel is the superintendent of the Abington School District in Abington, Pa. She also served as the 2013-14 president of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. She participated in the AASA International Seminar in Scotland.   

A Visit to Stewart’s Melville College in Scotland

A guest post by AASA President Gail Pletnick

[Pictured left to right: AASA President Gail Pletnick; AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech; AASA Past President Amy Sichel.]

A visit to Stewart’s Melville College in Edinburgh allowed us to get a close look at education at this private school for students (boys) ages 12-17. The school grounds were beautiful and the building radiated tradition.

The boys were smartly dressed in school uniforms that distinguished their rank or grade level at the school. The library had old stained glass windows and the woodwork was incredible. At the same time, we saw modern physical education facilities including a competition-sized pool.

This mix of very traditional and more current was also reflected in the instruction we saw in classrooms. Our tour guides were two young gentlemen who were in their final year at the school. They wanted to show us everything this private school represented and offered.

One of our first stops was in a language arts classroom where the teacher was teaching a math lesson because he felt strongly this was an area where students were not as well prepared as they should be. He expressed his view that students performed well on the required tests because the test was too easy. In that classroom we observed the teacher sitting at his desk and students assigned problems to solve. Some students were engaged and others appeared disengaged.

As we moved to another room where history was taught, our student tour guides became animated and shared how the teachers in this department used innovative teaching techniques, including taking on the persona of a historical figure, dressing as that person and surprising students with their presence in the classroom. The students spoke of never forgetting those lessons.

We all know that teachers are the first and most important connection between the student and learning. The physical environment and the resources available do impact learning. However, the human resource we call teacher is the key.

In the Stewart’s Melville College and in the ESMS private school system that this school belongs to, teachers are paid approximately 10 percent more than in the government-funded schools. That is certainly an advantage. However, as observed in some schools, money alone cannot guarantee the best instruction. Once again, we find location or a school’s category does not seem to matter when we are speaking about the fundamentals that drive quality education and one of those most critical components is a highly skilled and caring teacher.


Gail Pletnick is the superintendent of the Dysart Unified School District in Surprise, Ariz., and the 2017-18 president of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. She is participating in the AASA International Seminar in Scotland.

College & Career Readiness is Important – in the U.S. or Scotland

A guest post by AASA President Gail Pletnick

During our visit to the Mary Erskine School, we had an opportunity to speak with students directly. Our tour guides for the visit were two young women in their last year at the school. One of the girls told us she planned to go to the university for civil engineering and the other planned on becoming an attorney.

The students spoke of their love of the “maths” and sciences, as well as language. Although the students did not speak about 21st century skills or the 4 Cs, the projects and work that lined the halls and were on display in classrooms were evidence that creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration were woven into learning at this school. Even in a school that is a more traditional model, going beyond academics and ensuring students obtain the knowledge, skills and dispositions necessary in this new era of work and life are being addressed.

The young ladies spoke of being encouraged to identify their interests, and of being counseled and supported as they explored various pathways. Courses in the U.S. that may be classified as career and technical classes, including culinary arts, technical design and military training, are offered in this all girls’ school. Additionally, our guides shared that they are assisted in finding internships where they can get experience in a work environment in an area of their choice.

It was interesting that in the Mary Erskine School, the primary tool observed for classroom instruction was paper and pencils. However, the students shared they can obtain permission to use their own devices. There were, however, computer labs, computers in the library and technology in some of the classrooms that focused on technical courses.

The world of work and life is changing and regardless of a school describing itself as traditional or innovative, private or public, single sex or co-ed, located in the U.S. or Scotland, preparing students with the knowledge, skills and dispositions to take on the challenges and opportunities of the new era of work and life is not an option—it is a mandate.


Gail Pletnick is the superintendent of the Dysart Unified School District in Surprise, Ariz., and the 2017-18 president of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. She is participating in the AASA International Seminar in Scotland.

Scotland’s Mary Erskine School

A guest post by AASA Past President Amy Sichel  

Tours and visits to private independent schools show how enriching an educational experience can be when government restrictions are minimal, with extreme local control and funding is optimal. It is not surprising that these are key components to deliver educational opportunities for all!

We visited the all girls’ Mary Erskine School, one of the three schools of the Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools system (ESMS). It is an independent secondary school associated with the boys’ school and the primary center, the equivalent of our preK-6 program. We met with Mrs. Velma Moule, the head of the girls’ school and, as of the next school year, the head of the entire ESMS operation.

The organization of the combined schools is unusual, based upon a diamond structure. Envision the bottom point as co-ed nursery for 3- and 4-year-olds. Then you separate the boys and the girls, the horizontal points, for single sex primary and secondary school and at the top of the diamond the students come together for a coed senior year.

Many students begin in the primary class and continue throughout secondary school. The entire ESMS has almost 2,800 students with 760 in the girls’ school, 760 in the boys’ school and 1,250 in the co-ed component. This is a large institution for an independent school and is considered one of Scotland’s best.

Admission is selective and students must have a required level of proficiency on the Cognitive Abilities Test. Surprisingly, their biggest challenge is the competition for students with other independent/private schools in the Edinburgh area, but Mary Erskine holds its own, always operating at capacity. In the metropolitan area, 25 percent of students attend independent schools as compared to the Highlands, where less than 5 percent attend independent schools. Nationally, the figure is 7 percent.

The grounds and school buildings of the two campuses we visited are beautiful. The girls’ school—the focus of this blog—is exceptional with a mix of old and new facilities. Students wear a classic uniform with a red and blue tartan kilt, and a blue blazer with the school’s emblem. Most students are from means and able to afford the $13,000 annual tuition per student that supports the school, with no aid from the Scottish government.

No more than 5 percent of the students receive “bursar aide”, support for the tuition payment based on need, but they must still meet the rigid entrance requirements. The students are required to take the state regulated end-of-year standardized exams, based upon the ACCESS TO EXCELLENCE standards. The school, however, as an independent school, does not have to teach that curriculum and is free to provide more comprehensive offerings. All the teachers must be accredited by the government, with mandated professional development and continuing education.

Our young senior girl tour guides were exceptional, with a keen understanding of the “ethos” of the school, representing not only academics, but a clear understanding of citizenship, service, and a sense of values even though they are a non- secular school. We saw classrooms that were rather traditional and others more engaging and hands on—a real mix of teaching and learning. Twenty-first century skills were seen in design technology and manufacturing classes, including fashion design with top notch projects at the secondary levels.

The school has a wide range of extra-curricular activities including athletics and clubs. Some of these activities are fee-based and all staff are expected to participate in sponsoring clubs and competitions, including travel abroad. One of our tour guides was about to attend a trip to Florida and the other was going to New York City and Boston. The range of opportunities and experiences were impressive.

There were many similarities and some differences with our system. Many of our independent schools and some of our more affluent public schools have these exclusive opportunities. Unfortunately, decisions to offer such experiences often boil down to money, turning into the usual “haves versus the have nots.”

If only we could equalize the playing field so that all children could be “haves”!  I am not sure if we will see that in our lifetime. However, we are obligated to continue to advocate at both the state and national levels for fair funding and limiting unfunded educational regulations from both the state and federal level.
For me, this visit continues to highlight the need for strong membership in both the state association and AASA, The School Superintendents Association. We need to continue to advocate and be the voice for America’s children.


Amy Sichel is the superintendent of the Abington School District in Abington, Pa. She also served as the 2013-14 president of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. She is participating in the AASA International Seminar in Scotland.   

A Look at Two Prominent Private Schools in Scotland

A guest post by AASA President Gail Pletnick

[Pictured from left to right: AASA Past President Amy Sichel; AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech; and AASA President Gail Pletnick.]

Just as in the U.S., there are both government sponsored and private school options available in Scotland. After visiting government funded schools, we had an invitation to tour some private institutions.

The Mary Erskine School (for girls) and Stewart’s Melville College (for boys) are schools within the Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools (ESMS) private system. These schools are single sex from ages 12-18. The schools offer day school, week boarding or full-time boarding. Tuition for the day school is approximately $14,000 and full-time tuition and boarding fees are approximately $26,000. Other services are available for additional fees, including coach transportation to the school and travel experiences.

The Mary Erskine School and Stewart Melville College started as schools for children of merchants who could not afford an education otherwise. The schools have been in existence since 1694. Today, although the schools are non-profit, they rely primarily on tuition for all operating costs.

Students must apply for entrance to the schools and take an exam as part of the admission process. There are some scholarships available, but that only reflects 5 percent of the school population.

The comparison between private and public schools in Scotland is similar to what can be made between the two systems in the U.S. One example is the demographics in those schools. Although scholarships are available to the private Scottish schools, it is evident that the majority of students come from higher income families. To meet the interests of students, the EMSM schools provided more than 70 after-school clubs and co-curricular activities. Government schools attempt to offer after school options but funding for these programs is an issue and fee-based programs in government sponsored schools can create a hardship for families.

Filling academic gaps is a common goal shared by the private and government schools in Scotland and in the U.S., but there are some differences in the resources available to accomplish that. Ensuring that the needs of the whole child are met is another common area of focus in both school systems. Once again, however, there is a difference in tools available in government funded versus private schools.

When all is said and done, the place we call school may look different for children attending private vs. government-run schools and the resources available do differ. However, making certain students have their needs met, and any academic, physical, social or emotional gaps are addressed, are goals shared by all educators in these institutions of learning.

The bottom line is, we must make certain there is equity in our educational systems and each and every child has an opportunity for a quality education—on both sides of the ocean.


Gail Pletnick is the superintendent of the Dysart Unified School District in Surprise, Ariz., and the 2017-18 president of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. She is participating in the AASA International Seminar in Scotland.

A Look at Personalized Learning in Scotland

A guest post by AASA President Gail Pletnick

[Pictured from left to right: AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech; AASA Past President Amy Sichel; Dochgarroch Primary School Head Teacher and Principal Sandra MacLennan; and AASA President Gail Pletnick.]

A visit to Dochgarroch Primary School in Inverness, Scotland was a true lesson in personalizing learning. Sandra MacLennan, the head teacher and principal, arranged an extraordinary visit that included a tour of the entire facility and visits to a music class, preschool and regular classroom.

During the music class, we were treated to children performing piano, violin, trumpet and chanter solos. We learned that the chanter was the “training” instrument for bagpipes. That was followed by children sharing traditional Scottish songs and dance. The students were kind enough to give their American visitors a dancing lesson. I am not certain one lesson was enough. In the regular classrooms, we saw children typing in Braille, others on a computer doing a lesson, a story time and a pre-school class having snack.

You may be asking why any of this is special or how it relates to personalized learning? Well, this school has a total of 19 children ranging in age from 4 to 12 and includes special needs students. These children are served in two classrooms by one classroom teacher, one head teacher, a few support personnel and two special area teachers who rotate between schools in the region. The interests and needs of each child are being met in this unique learning environment.

This government school not only builds on their students’ passions and strengths but are equally dedicated to ensuring the child’s academic needs are met, including filling what is referred to as the attainment gap. In fact, the government has provided 1,800 pounds per student or approximately $2,300 per student to provide support to students who need that extra help. The student’s free meal status is used to help determine the funding received. Yes, this does sound familiar to Title 1 in some ways. Where it differs is the flexibility in how the funds can be used. The head teacher and parents work together to determine how best to fill the gap.

The take away from this visit is, whether schools are large or very small, located in the highlands of Scotland, the suburbs of Phoenix, Ariz. or outside Philadelphia, Pa., meeting the needs of every child must be the goal. Personalizing a child’s education ensures we tap their passions, build on their strengths and focus on their weaknesses.

Gail Pletnick is the superintendent of the Dysart Unified School District in Surprise, Ariz., and the 2017-18 president of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. She is participating in the AASA International Seminar in Scotland.

The AASA International Seminar Takes Us to Scotland

A guest post by AASA Past President Amy Sichel

AASA Past President Amy Sichel and AASA 2017-18 President Gail Pletnick.

Traveling to Scotland has been eye opening. The scenery and castles are beautiful.

Equally impressive is the thriving, government funded, education system where 95 percent of students attend public schools. The country claims to have achievement results that surpass Finland!

In the Highland area, schools are small and offer pre-K to secondary, the equivalent of our high school. Countrywide, class size (student-teacher) ratios are about 15-to-1 in primary and drop to 12-to-1 at the secondary level, the equivalent of our high school.

Scotland has a national system controlled by its Parliament and government oversight, much like we do with standards for the 21st century, with a focus on literacy, numeration, the arts and problem solving.

Scotland’s standards for excellence sound like those we have in the U.S. The list below outlines objectives which are very similar to ours:

  • Progression in learning and evaluating achievement, ages 3-18
  • Supporting improvement
  • Literacy and numeracy including Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN)
  • Career long professional learning
  • Support for engaging parents and caretakers
  • Senior phase pathways
  • Employability and skills (DYW)
  • Using data to support improvement
  • Tackling bureaucracy
  • Supporting the new national qualifications

There is a focus on leveling the playing field which the Scots call reducing the attainment gap, similar to our achievement gap.

The sequence of education continues through ages 16 to 18, where the focus is on school to work, entitled a “pathway”. How similar is that to what many of us are working to accomplish in our high schools? They are focused on “meeting the needs of all learners” as we work to meet the needs of “each learner”.

During what the Scots term the senior phase, they focus on service to others, and health and wellness, much like our profile of the graduate. This ensures addressing the knowledge, skills and dispositions that prepare students for the 21st century world of work and life. The Scots have an online tool which benchmarks the outcomes of the students called Benchmarking for Excellence.

We look forward to our school visits in the days to come.


Amy Sichel is the superintendent of the Abington School District in Abington, Pa. She also served as the 2013-14 president of AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

Statement in Support of Public Eduation

We issue this joint statement in support of public education and our continued commitment to the highest quality public education for all students.

Public education is the foundation of our 21st-century democracy. Our public schools are where our students come to be educated in the fullest sense of that word, including as citizens of this great country. We strive every day to make every public school a place where we prepare the nation’s young people to contribute to our society, economy, and citizenry.

Ninety percent of American children attend public schools. We call on local, state, and federal lawmakers to prioritize support for strengthening our nation’s public schools and empowering local education leaders to implement, manage and lead school districts in partnership with educators, parents, and other local education stakeholders and learning communities, and provide support such as counseling, extra/co-curricular activities, and mental health supports that will help students engage in learning;

We support and value inclusive and safe high-quality public schools where children learn to think critically, problem solve, and build relationships. We support an environment where all students can succeed beginning in the earliest years, regardless of their zip code, the color of their skin, their native language, their gender/gender identity, their immigration status, their religion, or their social standing.

We promote advancing equity and excellence in public education, and implementing continuous improvement and evidence-based practices. Every child has the right to an education that helps them reach their full potential and to attend schools that offer a high quality educational experience.

We support stable, equitable, predictable, and adequate funding for great public schools for every student in America so that students have inviting classrooms; have well-prepared and supported  educators, including teachers, paraprofessionals, and principals, who provide a well-rounded and complete curriculum and create joy in learning; have class sizes small enough to allow one-on-one attention; and have access to support services such as health care, nutrition, and after-school programs for students who need them.

We believe that public tax dollars should only support public schools that are publicly governed and are accountable to parents, educators, and communities. In no way should local, state, or federal funding be taken away from public schools and given to private schools that are unaccountable to the public.

We reiterate our love for public education and pride in our public schools. We will continue to promote the promise and purpose of public education, to elevate the great things happening every day in our public schools, and to engage communities around strategies that have helped students succeed.  We affirm our commitment to fight for resources and supports for public schools, and will be steadfast in our efforts to protect students and their families, public schools, and our communities from any policies that would undermine these values.

This the 5th day of September, 2017

AASA, The School Superintendents Association

American Federation of Teachers

National Association of Elementary School Principals

National Association of Secondary Principals

National Education Association

From “Back to School” to “Back to the Future”

A guest post by Ken Kay, CEO, EdLeader21, and Aaron Spence, superintendent, Virginia Beach City Schools, Va.

Aaron Spence [left] and Ken Kay [right].

Okay, we’ll admit it: both of us were already working on our traditional “Back to School” blogs when it dawned on us that we should be doing something differently. Yes, we need to welcome folks back to school after summer vacation. But must we welcome our stakeholders back to “school” as it has always been understood? Could we make “Back to School” an opportunity to help students, teachers, parents and administrators chart a new course for the direction of our schools? Can we help our communities envision the future of our schools even as we head back into them this fall?

For the past 15 years, we both have been collaborating with school and district leaders to transform education as we know it. Both of us have focused much of our energy on rethinking the purpose of education and the competencies students need to possess in the 21st century. This work shouldn’t have to be esoteric and conceptual; at some level, we’ve all heard enough experts waxing philosophically in TED Talks about the inadequacy of our current school system. Instead, this work should be intentional, concrete and practical. Like you, we’ve thought a lot about the kinds of schools that could prepare students for success. Now, we need to make them visible.

As we head back to school, a great way to move forward with this work is to develop a clear, coherent vision of those competencies that are required for students’ success in 21st-century life and work. This vision will ensure that stakeholders have a shared understanding of those competencies, and that these competencies are used as the criteria to ensure that all future decisions — from the boardroom to the classroom — support a common vision of 21st-century teaching and learning. Fortunately, we have a useful framework for this discussion in EdLeader21’s work around the 4Cs: critical thinking; communication; collaboration; and creativity. To learn more about this framework and the work EdLeader21 is doing to support discussion around the 4Cs in school districts across the country, visit

We believe that integrating the 4Cs into conversations about a district’s vision for the future of its schools is critically important. Districts that are interested in preparing students today for their world tomorrow are intentionally integrating these competencies into their strategic plan, their curriculum and their conversations with their community. Many district leadership teams have accomplished this work by adopting a “Profile of a Graduate” that specifically identifies those competencies required for 21st-century student success in language that is familiar to the stakeholders of that community.

In Virginia Beach, for example, EdLeader21 helped the district adopt its strategic plan, “Compass to 2020.” This plan conveys a clear, compelling vision for the future and was designed to guide the work of the district for five years in four key areas: academic achievement; multiple pathways to success; social and emotional development; and the strengthening of a culture of growth and excellence. An important part of communicating about “Compass to 2020” with their community was expressing clear outcomes that would be expected as a result of their work over those five years. In addition to creating Navigational Markers, a scorecard for the division that would allow the board and community to monitor specific metrics, they also created a Graduate Profile that identifies the specific 21st-century competencies that the district and community have adopted. These competencies were developed using the 4Cs as the starting point for a community conversation and include communication and collaboration, problem-solving and creativity, critical thinking and inquiry, personal and social responsibility, and cross-cultural competency. For Virginia Beach, this profile provides a guidepost to district and school leadership as they work to articulate and meet their strategic objectives.

Around the country, dozens of other districts have formally adopted their own unique “Profile of a Graduate,” not only to catalyze their districts’ transformations, but also to be responsive to their communities’ specific needs and goals. EdLeader21 has collected resources that emerged from their best and most promising practices to help you create a “Profile of a Graduate” on a new website: There, you will find examples from schools and districts across the country that have created a “Profile of a Graduate,” as well as an implementation guide to engage your community in dialogue about it. We have also created a “Profile Builder” with which you and your stakeholders can create your own personal “Profile of a Graduate” by selecting the 21st-century student competencies you believe are most essential. These can be shared with other members of your community to create momentum towards the adoption of a formal “Profile of a Graduate” for your district.

The “Profile of a Graduate” shouldn’t be presented or perceived as another new initiative for your district. Instead, it should become the “North Star” for all of your other initiatives. Over the course of the next school year, you’ll be making important decisions not only about curriculum and instruction, but also about digital learning initiatives, professional learning opportunities, capstone projects, portfolio and other alternative forms of performance assessment, hiring and evaluation practices and so much more. Imagine if decisions about all of those initiatives were made with explicit attention to their impact on students’ development of the 21st-century competencies you’ve identified in your “Profile of a Graduate.”

Talk to other district leaders who have led the development of a “Profile of a Graduate.” Both of us will be glad to introduce you to one. And consider how this year’s return to school might be the best time to help your district focus on its future. Imagine welcoming your community back to work that feels a little less like “Back to School” and a lot more like “Back to the Future.”


Ken Kay is the CEO of EdLeader21 and the Founding President of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. He can be reached at

Aaron Spence is the superintendent of Virginia Beach City Schools in Virginia Beach, VA. Spence was named 2018 Virginia Superintendent of the Year. He can be reached at

A Long, Hot Summer

Some of the images we’re seeing on television and stories we’re reading about in our local newspapers are describing some of the most disappointing and disheartening moments in the history of our country.

What has made it even more alarming? The violence, compounded with the flurry of discussions focusing on bigotry and hate, come at a time when we should be focusing on a more exciting time — the start of a new school year.

Make no mistake that these incidents are on the minds of every superintendent, principal, teacher and any other advocate for public education. Walk into any supermarket, bakery, barbershop, beauty salon or gas station and I would be surprised if people aren’t talking about it. The question remains, as I mentioned in a recent press statement, how do the leaders of the more than 13,000 public school systems pull through?

Once again, let me thank AASA members for the outstanding work they do in preparing our nation’s young people for the unique demands and challenges they will undoubtedly face in their lives beyond high school.

The examples of outstanding work being done by our superintendents are endless, but let me pinpoint just a few. I invite you to take a listen to the latest AASA Radio segment. Matt Utterback, the superintendent of Oregon’s North Clackamas School District and the 2017 AASA National Superintendent of the Year®, rightly points out that the academic success of the generations of students of tomorrow, is equally, if not more important to the academic success of students in our schools today.

Earlier this summer, Gail Pletnick, superintendent of Arizona’s Dysart Unified School District 89, was sworn in as the 2017-18 president of AASA. An outstanding leader in every sense, Gail proudly asserts the importance of redefining, redesigning and reimagining teaching and learning environments in our schools as a way to improve the overall quality of our school systems and communities.


Finally, in late July, Illinois superintendents Mike Lubelfeld (Deerfield Public School District 109) and Nick Polyak (Leyden High School District 212) successfully led AASA’s Digital Consortium summer meeting in suburban Chicago, where dozens of administrators engaged in meaningful dialogue about model digital transitions to improve student achievement.

AASA recently launched its I Love Public Education (#LovePublicEducation) campaign, an on-going effort to highlight why public schools are essential to developing the future generations that will maintain our country’s status as a world leader. Shortly following the Labor Day holiday, we will formally introduce another section of our website that provides a collection of resources about equity for school system leaders at all levels to help them and their teams succeed.

Who could’ve imagined the inflammable rhetoric that has taken place in our nation over the past few days? Not many of us could have foreseen the most fundamental fabric of our country — the public schools in our communities — being threatened by the ugliness of the actions that have been carried out by a selected few.

I am unboundedly confident that despite the rhetoric, our nation’s public school system leaders will rise to the occasion. They will speak out about the value of the public schools in their respective communities. They will speak out about the partnership that we, as educators, have with families throughout our urban, suburban and rural communities. This is a partnership to ensure that all children in these communities will receive the quality education that they deserve and that they are entitled to.


Daniel A. Domenech is the executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association.