Thank you to our Nation’s Champions for Children

This week, millions of Americans will gather around dining room tables all over the country and give thanks to the people who mean the most to them.

Let me take this opportunity to say “thank you” to the individuals who I consider the foremost thought leaders in education—our superintendents.

Last week, the nation’s State Superintendents of the Year convened in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the tremendous strides made in public education. They also exchanged ideas and best practices that are working in their respective school districts.

AASA 2016 National Superintendent of the Year Thomas S. Tucker presenting at AASA's Superintendent of the Year Gala in Washington, D.C.

AASA 2016 National Superintendent of the Year Thomas S. Tucker presenting at AASA’s Superintendent of the Year Gala in Washington, D.C., on November 15, 2016.

As part of our Forum, we heard from Thomas Tucker, the 2016 National Superintendent of the Year. (See video). The parents and grandparents of this young man were sharecroppers in an impoverished Arkansas community. Tucker, the superintendent of Ohio’s Princeton City Schools, grew up in a house heated only by two pot-bellied stoves. Yet, his family instilled in him that to rise out of poverty, one must earn a first-class education. During his keynote remarks, he said, “I had some of the best caring and compassionate teachers in the world. All of us were poor but [our teachers] wouldn’t let us develop a poor mentality.”

Over the past few weeks through our leadership programs, we have seen glowing examples of caring and compassionate teaching and learning going on in the U.S.

In late September, some of our superintendents met in Vista, Calif. as part of the Personalized Learning Summit. At a time when more than 100 school systems across the country are implementing personalized learning initiatives, this innovative practice has become a powerful way to reach every child to meet their specific needs. I thank California Superintendent of the Year Devin Vodicka and his school district, Vista Unified, for hosting this summit.

Members of AASA's Digital Consortium meeting at California’s Napa Valley Unified School District.

Members of AASA’s Digital Consortium meeting at California’s Napa Valley Unified School District.

A few weeks later, several dozen superintendents met in California’s Napa Valley Unified School District for the fall meeting of AASA’s Digital Consortium. As Jill Gildea, superintendent of Illinois’ Fremont School District, tweeted during the meeting, “learning and engagement is evident.” New Technology High School was among the schools visited during the meeting. Principal Riley Johnson stated, “We have teachers here who are some of the best project-based practitioners I’ve ever met.” Part of New Tech’s mission is “to be a student-centered model for education innovation.” The gathering proved to be very successful, giving tech-savvy superintendents opportunities to bring proven ideas back home when it comes to digital learning.

Earlier this month, representatives from K-12 leadership and heads of community colleges met for the fourth time in two years to raise awareness about one of the most critical issues in education today: college readiness. As part of our partnership with the American Association of Community Colleges, the meeting was an example of what it means to blur the lines with school districts and community colleges as we find new ways to get kids ready for college and later life.

As I travel throughout the country, I am pleased to see more and more superintendents engaging with other superintendents and education stakeholders to improve their individual skill sets and strengthen their respective school districts.

America’s education system is the best in the world. Our graduate rate is the highest it’s ever been. Our drop-out rate is the lowest it’s ever been. More kids today are attending college than ever before. It’s no wonder that our superintendents are our nation’s champions for children. They are the educational ambassadors in their communities.

Thank you for the outstanding work you do. Happy Thanksgiving!

An Education Priority: More Women in Leadership Roles

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Mary Alice Heuschel, 2011 AASA National Superintendent of the Year finalist, speaking at the 2016 Women in School Leadership Forum.

Earlier this month, AASA, The School Superintendents Association, announced the finalists for the 2017 Women in School Leadership Awards. Co-sponsored by AASA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, these awards are designed to recognize leading female administrators who are making a positive difference for their respective communities as well as the students they serve.

This year, we added a new category—the School Based Award—an award that provides a pathway for AASA to support more women educators in developing leadership skills and advancing their careers.

On the heels of this announcement, AASA collaborated with the Association of California School Administrators for the sixth annual Women in School Leadership Forum. Approximately 250 women educators convened in Newport Beach, Calif., in late September to network, discuss leadership and examine ways to climb career ladders.

Speakers at the forum were women business leaders including Marita Zuraitis, the CEO of Horace Mann. She told her audience to “play to your strengths and be a problem solver. It’s up to you whether things are obstacles or roadblocks. Or, do you look at them as opportunities?”

Mary Alice Heuschel was a 2011 AASA National Superintendent of the Year finalist and is currently the deputy director for U.S. programs with the Gates Foundation. A speaker at the forum, she said, “Fail forward. Get up, dust yourself off and continue to move ahead. In failure, we discover how to improve. Every successful person has failed along the way.”

Fewer than 25 percent of America’s superintendents—the leaders of our nation’s public school districts—are women. It’s clear that a lot of work needs to be done to bring more women into leadership roles. Putting more females in leadership positions is essential if we’re going to raise the bar in our profession and send a signal to more female students who may wish to pursue education administration as a career.

I am pleased that AASA is doing its part to grow the careers of women educators. In addition to our School Leadership Awards and Forums, we recently selected 20 accomplished women leaders from school districts across the country to participate in the inaugural cohort of the AASA Aspiring Women Leaders Program. The initiative was launched to help mitigate the impact of social barriers women face in ascending to the top leadership positions within our school systems and to significantly increase the number of women seeking and becoming CEOs and superintendents of schools.

As a participant in this program, women will receive:

  • Mentoring and coaching from a member of the AASA National Women’s Leadership Consortium;
  • Opportunities to network and collaborate with other aspiring women leaders from across the country; and
  • Opportunities to gain national visibility through presentations at AASA meetings and in webinars.

All of these activities represent a longstanding tradition of AASA applauding outstanding female education practitioners. Through these programs and activities, we don’t expect it will be long before we see a decrease in the gender gap when it comes to education administration.

For information about our Women in School Leadership programs and initiatives, please contact MaryAnn P. Jobe, AASA director, education and leadership development, at mjobe@aasa.org.

Doing the Best with What You Have

(L-to-R) AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech, Principal Louis Rojas and AASA President Alton Frailey.

(L-to-R) AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech, Principal Louis Rojas and AASA President Alton Frailey.

Costa Rica – Louis Rojas is the principal of the San Rafael School, a small facility serving 114 students. Louis reports directly to a district supervisor that is similar to the district superintendent in the U.S.

Similar to the other schools we have visited, San Rafael educates preschoolers ages 4-5, kindergarten for 6-year-olds and the primary education grades 1-6. From there, students will attend “college,” the equivalent of high school for our students.

Uniforms are required in all schools as to eliminate economic differences. Their “college” is a six-year program where the first three years focus on general education while the last three require students to focus on either academic or technical tracks. They will graduate with a “bachelor’s” degree that grants them access to the public and private universities in the country.

Similar to the U.S., poverty is also a major factor. Forty-two percent of preschool children live in homes where parents have less than six years of schooling and more than 60 percent live in poverty. All of the schools we visited were lacking the resources that the principals regarded as necessary to meet the needs of the students.

Nevertheless, there is an overwhelming commitment to educate all children supported by administrators and teachers who do the best they can with what they have.

Dan is blogging throughout the AASA International Seminar, which is taking place in Costa Rica.

A Visit to the Alegre School

AASA Executive Director, Dan Domenech, with Principal Gretta Mendez at the Cerro Alegre school.

AASA Executive Director, Dan Domenech, with Principal Gretta Mendez at the Cerro Alegre school.

La Fortuna, Costa Rica – Gretta Mendez was assigned to become the principal teacher of the one-room Alegre (Happy Hill) School three years ago. Unless you know where you are going, you would never find it. First of all, it’s not a school building. It’s a small Catholic Church in the mountains of Chachagua. The local priest allows Gretta to use the church as a school. There is an empty lot next to the church that the government purchased to build a school but that seems to be years away.

Most of the children who attend Cerro Alegre come from Nicaraguan families that are in Costa Rica illegally. There is an existing school that the children could attend but it’s so far from their homes that most of them would not go to school at all. While visiting Cerro Alegre the children regaled their AASA visitors with native dances and songs and then invited their guests to do the Hokey Pokey.

Typical of Costa Rican schools, the children are divided into morning and afternoon sessions each lasting about four hours. Gretta teaches both sessions.

The school is very much in need of resources and the AASA guests were eager to help out with donations and promises to send pencils, notebooks and furniture.

It’s a tough assignment and Gretta confesses that many a day she considers leaving Cerro Alegre to go teach in a conventional school, but then she looks at the faces of her children and she knows she will never abandon them. She knows that they would never travel the distance it would take to go to the school in town. She knows that many of the undocumented parents would not risk sending their kids to the regular school.

So Gretta stays and makes the most of it with the contributions she receives, the borrowed space from the local priest and the most beautiful smiles from the children she loves and teaches.

Dan is blogging throughout the AASA International Seminar, which is taking place in Costa Rica.

A Strong Educational Leader in Costa Rica

NSBA President-Elect Kevin Ciak with students at the Leon Cortes Castro School in Costa Rica.

NSBA President-Elect Kevin Ciak with students at the Leon Cortes Castro School in Costa Rica.

Alajuela, Costa Rica – Marisel Solera is the spunky principal of the Leon Cortes Castro School in this Costa Rican mountain town. Solera has been running the school for nine years, and she leaves no doubt that she is in charge and ready to get her students the best education that she can offer to them.

Almost half of her school budget goes toward feeding her kids. Every one of them gets a free lunch every day.

There is nothing modern about the facility but it is clean and well maintained. Solera is big on discipline and has little tolerance for misbehavior from her students or her staff.  But her commitment to her students and her school is firm. When teachers are absent, she is the sub. When everyone else is on vacation, she’s recruiting teachers to make sure she has her full complement of staff.

The school has an enthusiastic core of volunteers that greatly respect the principal and engage in fund raising to meet whatever needs are not met by government funding. Solera is not reluctant to take on the bureaucracy and admits to having been called on the carpet after objecting too strenuously to not receiving what her children need.

I suspected that among our group of visiting educators from the U.S., many were dreaming about having Solera heading up one of their elementary schools.

AASA Leadership Visits Costa Rica

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AASA President Alton Frailey with students in Alajuela, Costa Rica.

Alajuela, Costa Rica – In 1869, Costa Rica made education both free and mandatory for all its citizens. Lore has it that the country was experiencing economic hard times and could not afford to maintain both an army and a public education system. They chose education and today Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world without a standing army. They even boast of having more teachers than police officers.

We visited the Carrizal elementary school in the mountain town of Alajuela. The school of 600 accommodates pre-school through grade six as well as special education students who attend one of two five hour shifts, a morning and afternoon session. Teachers are only allowed to teach one shift.

Based on achievement, the school is level 4, with level 5 being the highest performing schools. The school year runs 200 days from mid-February to mid-December. Class size averages about 32 students per class.

Instruction is very traditional with students in desks facing the blackboard in the front of the room where the teacher delivers the lesson. Even so, Costa Rica boasts a 95 percent literacy rate among residents age 15 and older.

Alajuela is a coffee bean growing region surrounded by dense foliage and beautiful streams. It typifies the tranquility that Costa Rica is so famous for.

The children are happy to see us and look forward to practicing their mandatory English language skills with us. To a resounding cheer, I tell them that they are doing so well that I might take them all back to the U.S. with me.

Taking ‘Future Ready’ Beyond the Pledge

It was two years ago that AASA collaborated with the Department of Education to invite 118 Superintendents to the White House to meet with President Obama for the launch of Future Ready. At the event, the Superintendents in attendance along with more than 1,000 more around the country took the Future Ready Pledge. Since then, AASA has been working with superintendents and school systems in every state to promote the transformation of education as we know it through personalized learning.

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Educators have dreamt about individualizing education for every child since the 1960s. In spite of valiant efforts on the part of teachers and administrators, it was impossible for a teacher with twenty-some students in a class to provide personalized instruction on a day to day basis throughout the entire school year. Recent advances in technology, however, have made it possible for personalized learning to take place. AASA has been in the forefront of advocating for personalized learning as the goal of the digital leap. Technology for the sake of technology is a costly mistake and we continue to caution our superintendents to undertake the necessary planning and training before rushing to buy a laptop for every child.

The President’s ConnectEd proposal promises that 99 percent of American students will have access to next-generation broadband by 2018. Two years ago a major step was taken to accomplish that goal when the Federal Communications Commission increased the E-rate spending cap to $3.9 billion. The E-rate has become one of the major sources of federal funding for schools and libraries and superintendents are taking advantage of this funding by bringing wireless internet service into their classrooms. This enables teachers to deliver individualized content to digital devices used by the students. A parent walking into such a classroom will experience a very different view of education than the rows of student desks facing the front of the room and the lecturing teacher that was their norm. Instead they see students scattered around the classroom, some sitting at desks others on the floor, some working alone, others in small groups. All of them engaged. The teacher is not lecturing the whole class but wonders around the room providing help and support as needed.

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Today AASA’s Digital and Personalized Learning Consortia include hundreds of school systems throughout the country. The superintendents leading those districts meet on a regular basis and communicate with each other frequently to exchange ideas and solutions. Taking advantage of social media channels like Twitter, the superintendents conduct regular chats on #suptchat and use Apps like Voxer to stay in touch. It’s not just the kids that are taking advantage of the technology and social platforms.

We are seeing significant changes and growth taking place in our districts and hopefully the beginning of a transformation of education as we have known it. All for the better. The future is here.

Passing of the Torch

AASA President David R. Schuler presenting at our 2016 National Conference on Education

AASA President David R. Schuler presenting at our 2016 National Conference on Education

July always marks a special time of year for AASA, The School Superintendents Association. Some of the sharpest minds in public education are gathering in our nation’s capital next week for our annual legislative advocacy conference.

At the convening of our conference, the room will be filled with dozens of superintendents, the “champions for children” who are the catalysts behind the achievements taking place in our school systems today.

It was only fitting that during AASA’s 150th anniversary year, we saw the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The strong efforts from our members combined with the great work of our policy and advocacy team was a major lever in creating the new legislation.

We will continue to work closely with the U.S. Department of Education to ensure that the transition to ESSA, and the rules and regulations issued by the Department, are in line with the spirit of the new law. During our three-day meeting (July 12-14), superintendents will have the opportunity to visit members of Congress and other education policy leaders to discuss ESSA and other pressing matters affecting our schools.

In conjunction with the conference, AASA will install Alton Frailey, superintendent of Katy Independent School District (Katy, Texas), and Gail Pletnick, superintendent of Dysart Unified School District 89 (Surprise, Ariz.), as president and president-elect respectively. I look forward to working with Alton and Gail in their new roles.

On behalf of the AASA family, I wish to congratulate David Schuler for completing a successful term as president. I invite you to read his June column in School Administrator, “An Amazing Year in AASA’s Evolution.” The superintendent of Illinois’ High School District 214 played a key role in our success. David testified before Congress last month as part of the House Education and the Workforce Committee’s hearing about steps to implement ESSA. Read our press release.

David was the founding father of AASA’s Redefining Ready! campaign, launched at our 2016 National Conference on Education in Phoenix, Ariz. I recently had the opportunity to visit David’s district in suburban Chicago and saw firsthand multiple indicators aimed to assess a student’s readiness for life beyond high school. I discuss my visit in my May 31 blog, “Student Engagement At Its Best.” David spoke of this important matter when he addressed a gathering of superintendents and community college presidents in June.

A tech-savvy educator, David is a member of AASA’s Digital Consortium and regularly participates in #suptchat, a monthly conversation via Twitter (the first Wednesday of each month, from 8-9 p.m. ET) involving superintendents and other educators from across the country who virtually share ideas about the most critical issues in our business.

Every July, we have a “passing of the torch” but with David, it’s hardly a farewell. He will continue to serve on our executive committee as immediate past president and will surely be a valuable asset as AASA continues to serve as the nation’s premier voice for school system leadership.

K-14 Partnerships

There are numerous partnerships that have sprouted in recent years between school districts and their local community colleges. Superintendents and college presidents have managed to blur the line that frequently exists between K-12 and higher ed. There are many advantages to do this for both institutions but it is the students that benefit the most.

Recently, under the auspices of AASA and the American Association of Community Colleges, superintendents and community college presidents come together to share the results of their partnerships and to consider what steps can be taken to broaden their collaboration.

The K-12 goal to get students to be college and career ready for the top forty percent of students is not much of a challenge. It is the remaining sixty percent that will require some heavy lifting, particularly for minority students and students living in poverty. A bachelor’s degree after four years of college is a lofty goal that may not be desirable or realizable for some students. We are also aware of the heavy student debt and lack of employment opportunity that many of our four-year college graduates face today.

At the same time we hear from the business community that thousands of jobs that do not require a four-year degree are begging to be filled but the skilled workers are not there. Our community colleges are positioned to meet this demand and provide a viable option to the many students that do not aspire to a bachelor’s degree, or cannot afford it, and would benefit from acquiring employable skills with an associate’s degree. The two-year colleges also provide a viable option for students that cannot afford the bachelor’s degree but can complete the first two years at a community college.

Many school districts are now working with their local community colleges to provide the pathways that will present students with the options that best fit their interests, talents and economic situation. College and career ready can mean a post-secondary education with a host of opportunities ranging from certification in a trade to a postgraduate professional degree.

The dropout rate for Black and Latino students still hovers above the fifty percent mark. A college degree is a distant reality for a student that faces the daily challenges of having to contribute to the financial support of their family or who is simply not motivated to consider a post-secondary education. Rather than allowing these students to disappear from our schools, superintendents are partnering with their community college presidents to design programs that begin at high school and carry through enrollment at the community college. It is an opportunity that has appeal to many of our white middle class students as well.

Today, higher standards have been set and all students must achieve them  in order to graduate from high school. However, there is nothing to prevent schools from offering their students alternative pathways to the diploma. The Seminole County Public Schools in Florida require the same high standards for all of their graduates, including four years of math. In partnership with Seminole State College and the University of Central Florida, as superintendent Walt Griffin says, “ A Seminole student can ride his bike to school from kindergarten right through his doctorate.”

Students can earn up to twelve college credits in high school and are offered a myriad of options that cover every conceivable course of study. Griffin and Seminole State College President, Ann McGee, have forged a unique, almost seamless, K-16 relationship that even includes the sharing of two members that sit on both boards.

In Illinois, AASA President-elect David Schuler and his colleagues in the feeder school districts have also created multiple pathways to secondary credentials with Harper College President Ken Ender. Together they have worked to better prepare the high school students to be college and career ready through a significant increase in the number of students taking dual credit courses and an emphasis on math readiness that has reduced by 21% the number of students requiring math remediation at the college.

These successful partnerships between community colleges and school districts must extend to all communities in America. We will continue to partner with our colleagues at AACC to realize that goal.

Doing Away With Grade Levels

  • It seems sacrilegious, really, but I am advocating that we do away with the K-12 grade level structure in education. Perhaps because it is how we have organized our schools since we evolved from the one room schoolhouse back in the nineteenth century, the grade level structure is taken for granted. You notice that reform agendas do not include doing away with grade levels. We have vouchers, charters, extended day, extended school year, evaluating teachers and principals if we are not firing them, privatizing schools or closing them and reopening them under new management, but no talk of doing away with grade levels. If anything, there is renewed interest in having students repeat grades as a backlash against social promotion.
  • We talk about thinking out of the box but no one talks about thinking out of grade levels.
  • The reality is that many of the problems affecting our education system can be traced to the grade level organizational structure. Back in the day, when there were thirty-some students assigned to a class with one teacher, the modus operandi were for that teacher to teach to the middle of the pack. The class was taught as a group. Consequently, the kids at the bottom were lost and left behind and the kids at the top were bored and frustrated. Teachers lectured and, with so many students, were seldom able to provide individual instruction. The students who did not grasp the lesson would have to stay after school or come in early to try to get extra help from the teacher. Often that was not enough and thus began a cycle where students were being left further and further behind. Our solution was to provide remediation, summer school, after school, private tutoring. All kinds of add-ons to the school day to deal with students who could not keep up with instruction aimed at children of a certain age at a certain grade level. For the gifted and talented we saw the creation of gifted and talented programs that would either group these students into homogeneous classrooms or provide for their needs at certain times of the day, much like what was being done for their less talented peers.
  • Whoa there, some of you may be saying, isn’t this what we are still doing today? Yes, over the years we have effectively reduced the number of students in a class to the twenty-something range but we are still tied to the same organizational structure with the same results. The pity is that it no longer has to be that way. Smaller class sizes and technology make it absolutely possible for us to break away from the grade level structure and provide individualized instruction to each and every child. Our teachers will need to be trained to become directors of instruction, guides on the side rather than the sage on the stage. The laws, rules and regulations that have firmly ensconced grade levels into our schools will have to be repealed. Can schools operate without grade levels? Of course they can. Since the 1970’s there have been sporadic attempts at non-gradedness. Montessori programs have been doing it for years. Individually Guided Education was popular in Wisconsin as early as the 1960’s. And of course, the original one-room schoolhouse was non-graded.
  • The notion of grouping students by age was an accommodation to expediency, not pedagogy. It fulfilled the adult’s need to efficiently organize children into manageable units. And in the days where one adult had to deal with a large number of students without other means of support, it was the best possible arrangement. That is no longer the case.
  • Under ESSA, we have the opportunity to move towards a performance-based, competency-based system of education that would allow each child to learn at his or her own pace. The current system expects all children to learn the same thing in the same time frame. In a competency-based system children would never be left behind because the instruction would always be appropriate to their level of performance. Today’s technology makes that possible. The teacher as a director of instruction can develop an individual lesson plan for each child using the multitude of software and online courses currently available. Formative assessments will constantly monitor the child’s progress thus informing the next level of instruction.
  • Rather than grade levels, we can identify children by their level of progress relative to the standards. High School diplomas would be bestowed upon those that achieve the prescribed level for mastery of the standards. Students will achieve such mastery at various ages but a high school diploma will have meaning, ensuring that the holder has achieved a specific scope of knowledge and level of performance. That would be a real transformation.