Making Time for Mastery

From my May 2018 column in the School Administrator:

TIME CONTINUES to be a major regulator in education. The number of days a student must attend school is specified by law, usually around 180 days per school year. In many cases, the number of hours a student must be in school also is mandated, as are the hours in attendance required to get credit for a course.

These requirements came about with the best of policymakers’ intentions. Children could not learn if they were not in school and in the classroom, so we thought.

Today’s technology makes it possible for a student to learn any place and any time if there is a Wi-Fi connection. Nevertheless, the place and time requirements are still in place. Programs of study will specify a content that must be mastered at a particular grade level during the course of the school year. Children who exhibit mastery get promoted to the next grade level. The students who do not get to repeat the grade — not just the areas where they failed to achieve, but the entire grade content.

Going Systemwide
In most states, the school year still follows the agrarian calendar: 10 months of school with a couple of months off during the summer. Many educators have pointed to the summer learning loss that occurs. They have urged for an expansion of year-round schools, a scheduling practice that has failed to gain ground not because it does not make sense but because the summer vacation is ingrained in our culture.

During my tenure as superintendent in Fairfax County, Va., we established year-round schools in many of our facilities, but the school system abandoned the project when parents with children in both traditional and year-round schools found it difficult to reconcile the various schedules. Going systemwide with the change was not possible because of Virginia’s “Kings Dominion law,” which prohibits public schools from opening before Labor Day without a special dispensation. Apparently, ensuring that amusement parks in Virginia are well attended and staffed during the holiday weekend is more important than eradicating summer learning loss.

The high school graduation rate is determined by the percentage of students who graduate four years after entering the 9th grade. Four years is the key, not five, six or seven, just four. If you cannot make it in four, you do not count, begging the question: What is more important — that a student receive a high school diploma or that graduation takes place in four years? There are many other examples of how time seems to be the critical factor in our education system as opposed to learning mastery, regardless of the time it may take to achieve it.

Regulatory Relief
Several years ago, my colleagues Mort Sherman and John Brown and I wrote Personalizing 21st Century Education: A Framework for Student Success. In the book, we claim that educators have long wanted to be liberated from the regulatory chains that bind us. The 21st century has introduced the enabling technology to make personalized learning a reality. Time is one of the factors we seek to discard, thus allowing instruction to proceed at the appropriate pace for each student. Since the publication of the book, AASA’s Personalized Learning Cohort has expanded to include dozens of superintendents throughout the country who have implemented programs that allow the student to set the pace of instruction.

Jeff Dillon, superintendent in Wilder, Idaho, claims his “students are learning to slow down rather than rushing through lessons just to get them done. There is purpose now, and the students are the ones responsible.” Dillon says time has now become a positive focus. By removing traditional passing periods and bell schedules, he estimates that over a four-year high school career, an entire year of instruction is recovered, “thus allowing students and their mentors to better allocate the instructional time needed to fulfill the district’s commitment to empowering student voice and student mastery.”

At the Amboy Community Schools in Illinois, Superintendent Jeff Thake has been influenced by self-paced classrooms where students can advance grade levels as they are ready, as opposed to waiting for the end of the school year. He has highlighted project-based learning in his classrooms, allowing students to work at their own pace thanks to a technology-rich environment.

Moving away from pacing guides and allowing students the time they need to achieve mastery is a step in the right direction. Recognizing that students can learn anywhere and at any time will begin the necessary transformation from the traditional space and time regulations.

is AASA executive director. Twitter: @AASADan

Managing Class Conduct Nonverbally

Managing Class Conduct Nonverbally
By Daniel A. Domenech/School Administrator, April 2018

CLASSROOM CIVILITY can depend greatly on classroom management. Those of us who have spent time in the classroom fully recognize that little learning will take place in an out-of-control classroom.

In “The Key to Classroom Management” article in Educational Leadership (September 2003), Robert Marzano says research has shown us that “teachers’ actions in their classrooms have twice the impact on student achievement as do school policies regarding curriculum, assessment, staff collegiality and community involvement.”

Many strategies are available to teachers. I recently came upon a program that Pillager Elementary School in central Minnesota is implementing in their classrooms with impressive results. It is a classroom management model that combines nonverbal communication for both teaching and managing. The Pillager School District is within the region serviced by the National Joint Powers Alliance, a service agency with cooperative purchasing nationwide and one of AASA’s premier partners. NJPA is funding the training of Pillager staff in the use of the ENVoY nonverbal classroom management system.

My Class Visits
Most of the programs I am familiar with train the teacher to use specific techniques with individual children, typically those who act out in the classroom. The ENVoY system uses nonverbal cues that involve all children in the class as well as all adults.

During a recent trip to NJPA headquarters, I was invited to visit Mike Parrish’s 5th-grade class in Pillager and saw him standing in the front of the room, perfectly still with his left hand raised. He did not look at me nor did he acknowledge my presence. The students sat at their desks, also still and quiet.

Eventually, in a soft, low voice, Parrish began his lesson. He would point to children when he wanted to elicit a response from them and he would acknowledge students who raised a hand with a question. The lesson proceeded in an orderly manner in an almost soothing environment.

We also stopped into Kori Anderson’s 3rd-grade class, where we watched identical behavior by the teacher and her students. Anderson’s class included an aide who behaved in the same manner.

As we walked through the hallways of Pillager Elementary, we witnessed student behavior that was civil and orderly, without the sense that the students were being forced or overpowered into submission. Indeed, two of the goals of the ENVoY program are to influence rather than overpower and to use visual rather than verbal cues.

Josh Smith, Pillager’s principal and an ENVoY trainer, subsequently explained what we observed. When we walked into the classroom and the teacher did not acknowledge our presence by looking at us, Smith said, it prevented everyone in the classroom from being momentarily distracted from the task at hand. In classrooms with multiple teachers and aides working together, they are all trained in manifesting the same behaviors that focus on getting and maintaining student attention and reducing time spent on discipline.

Adult Behavior
My takeaway was that this is a program where the real focus is on modifying teacher behavior. When I asked the teachers, they agreed, regaling me with stories of the impact the program has had on their personal lives and their interaction with their own children at home. They explained this is not a process where you are trained and it’s over. Rather, it is an ongoing development and support scenario, which is necessary to sustain the culture of civility and calmness. Pillager is a model ENVoY school, and most staff members have been trained in the process.

ENVoY is not the only program supported by NJPA funding. I also participated in a class where the students “deconstructed” me to find out why I chose to become an educator. The experience will help students to better identify whether the profession they are considering best fits their traits and personality. NJPA also provides leadership development to administrators regionally and nationally in partnership with AASA through the GiANT Leadership Academy, and the agency also has funded training of aspiring superintendents in Minnesota.

NJPA’s largess extends to awarding mini-grants to schools in need. This year, NJPA allotted all mini-grant dollars to help school districts in Florida, Texas, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico that were affected by the hurricanes. We are grateful for the agency’s support and congratulate them for all they do to address the needs of children and educators throughout America.

is AASA executive director. Twitter: @AASADan

Nashville: A Community of Leaders

AASA’s National Conference on Education officially kicks off this week and I am pleased to report that the 2018 edition will be our largest convening in more than 10 years. This tells me that more and more superintendents and other public school administrators across the country are eager to learn from one another, trade strategies, and discuss what is working on behalf of the more than 50 million students who are attending our public schools.

Though the official launch of the conference is not until Thursday, meetings have been well underway at the Music City Center, our conference site. No longer is our conference a three-day event. We have created a cadre of professional development programs, specifically tailored to school system leaders who wish to grow their careers, foster leadership strengths and develop their skills.

Workshops began as early as Monday for participants of AASA’s National Superintendent Certification Program®. To recognize their accomplishment, members of our East Coast Cohort will be brought on stage later this week and be recognized for successfully completing the rigorous process.

Dr. Vincent Matthews, superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, serves as  one of our Certification instructional leaders who joined us in Nashville to facilitate our West cohort programs. “In order for large and small public school districts to move forward, we have to make sure that we have high quality and effective leadership at the top of these systems,” he said. “This is a program that gives superintendents the skills they need to implement a plan to move a district forward.”

Other pre-conference meetings this week involving our leadership programs will include our Urban Superintendents Academies, National Principal Supervisor Academy, Large Countywide and Suburban District Consortium, STEM Leadership Consortium, Early Learning Cohort, Aspiring Superintendents Academy®, AASA Leadership Academy and our Redefining Ready! Initiative.

As you can see, it’s quite a line-up and all of these meetings are taking place even before our first general session gets underway Thursday afternoon.

Professional development of this breath and quality did not exist when I was a superintendent. These are truly innovative programs we are really excited about. The feedback we receive from participants continues to be very positive. If you are with us in Nashville, please do not hesitate to ask me about these professional development initiatives.

Whether or not you’re attending the 2018 National Conference on Education, I encourage you to access AASA’s Conference Daily Online, our daily online e-newsletter, which will contain wall-to-wall coverage of news and photo highlights throughout the week.

Enjoy the 2018 National Conference on Education!

Shining Lights in Public Education

(Pictured from left to right: David Schuler, Amy Sieu, Daniel Domenech, Wendy Robinson, Mike Winstead.)

AASA, The School Superintendents Association, recently announced the four finalists for the 2018 Superintendent of the Year, a program graciously sponsored by VALIC and First Student. This is our opportunity to showcase four champions for children and put outstanding school district leaders from communities large and small on the national stage. It marks a time to place the spotlight on the superintendency — a profession I often say is the most difficult job in America, yet the most rewarding.

Earlier this month, we were pleased to host a press briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., featuring our four finalists. I invite you to watch the video. We were grateful that members of AASA’s Executive Committee were able to attend and we thank Daarel Burnette of Education Week for moderating the discussion.

Listen to Wendy Robinson, superintendent of Fort Wayne (Ind.) Community Schools, talk about the critical need for superintendents and other educational leaders to be community spokespersons for people who can’t speak for themselves. She’ll also talk about how schools in her district have distinctive business partnerships with major employers in her community for the benefit of her students.

You’ll hear David Schuler, superintendent of Township High School (Ill.) District 214, describe how students in his district having access to workplace learning experiences while they’re still in school help them decide what career tracks to take — and what not to take.

Mary Sieu, superintendent of ABC Unified (Calif.) School District and the daughter of Chinese immigrants, reflects on her love for “the world of public school.” She proudly proclaims, “demographics do not determine destiny.” I couldn’t agree more.

Mike Winstead, superintendent of Maryville City (Tenn.) Schools, shares how his district is pushing to enhance professional development for his teaching force as well as the mobilization throughout his community around the book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

All four discuss one of the most critical issues our nation is facing — equity in education. The discussion concludes with the participants sharing how their respective districts have been transformed over the years in order to, as Wendy put it, leave behind the “1950 view of education.”

The National Superintendent of the Year® will be announced at AASA’s National Conference on Education, Feb. 15-17, in Nashville, Tenn. We are proud of our finalists. We also know there are like-minded superintendents in droves with success stories of their own generated by the districts and communities they serve. I look forward to learning more about them.

Scores of public school district leaders, like Wendy Robinson, David Schuler, Mary Sieu and Mike Winstead, and others just like them are working tirelessly to maintain the fact that our nation’s public school system is the lifeblood of our democracy.

Congratulations to the four of you. This will be a tough call for our blue-ribbon panel of judges.

See you in Nashville!

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

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.