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.


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.


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.

On the Senate’s Appropriations Bill

This is the letter AASA sent to the Senate on their proposed appropriations bill:

On behalf of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, representing more than 13,000 school system leaders across the country, I write to relay our thoughts on the FY 2017 Labor-Health Human Services, Education and Other Appropriations bill, which is scheduled for consideration in your committee today, June 9. While we commend the sub-committee for their work to move the first bipartisan LHHS budget in seven years and acknowledge the budget pressures facing each appropriations sub-committee, we remain concerned that the education provisions within the bill, which include nominal increases for a small number of programs, include a $220 million reduction in discretionary funding for education (compared to FY2016 enacted levels).


Almost exactly six months ago today, President Obama signed the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law. FY17 allocations are the funds that will support the first year of ESSA implementation, and the allocations included in the bill you consider today fall short of supporting the new law. Congress must follow its strong bipartisan support for authorizing statute with adequate funding levels. In particular, it is critical to ensure a Title I allocation that ensures at least level funding to school districts. While the bill includes a $50 million increase over the FY16 Title I and School Improvement Grant allocations, it still results in a shortfall of $150 million in local level allocations, meaning school districts will start their first year under ESSA with a Title I cut. We are also deeply concerned with the low allocation to the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (Title IV). Title IV helps provide well-rounded education opportunities for all students, and we believe the program should receive a higher allocation, at a level robust enough to support meaningful formula driven allocations.


The success of our nation is shaped by the success of our public schools and the students they serve. We strongly urge Congress to support negotiations to raise the caps on non-defense discretionary funding, even beyond those of the 2015 Bipartisan Budget Act, which increase pressure on subcommittee allocations and continue to tie the hands of appropriators to more adequately invest in education. In addition to the nominal increase and local level cuts in Title I, the caps and subsequent allocations mean that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) receives a $40 million increase, which leaves the federal share hovering around 16% (less than half of the authorized 40% of the additional cost associated with educating student with special needs) and below FY10 allocations when adjusted for inflation.


As the FY17 LHHS-Education bill moves forward, we urge you to improve Title I funding to avoid cuts in local level allocations, to increase Title IV allocations to a level that supports meaningful formula allocation, and to oppose any ideological policy riders.

Student Engagement At Its Best

I recently had the opportunity to visit three high schools in High School District 214 in Arlington Heights, Illinois. Dave Schuler is the Superintendent there and he is about to finish his term as President of AASA The School Superintendents Association. During his tenure at AASA David has been a staunch advocate for redefining how we determine that students are ready for college, career, and life. He correctly postulates that a standardized test score does not always provide an accurate picture of a student’s potential nor an accurate reflection of a student’s readiness post high school. Consequently, he has developed multiple indicators that will assess a student’s readiness for college, career, and life.(www.RedefiningReady.org)

Practicing what he preaches, students in District 214 are offered a multitude of pathways, sixteen to be exact, and a focus on making high school relevant to all students. Beginning with the freshman year the students undergo a truly personalized experience as they are exposed to a multitude of opportunities and pathways and can select what interests them most, thus guaranteeing a level of student engagement in their own learning that we seldom see in schools. In a visit to Northwest Community Hospital I walked the hallways with a dozen students interested in the health sciences doing a semester internship and given access to the hospital’s facilities and permission to observe health care personnel performing  clinical and surgical procedures. All of the students in the program had garnered college acceptance in institutions where they would continue to pursue careers in nursing, research and medical practice.

At Buffalo Grove High School we were treated to a presentation on entrepreneurship by the “Hoodie Hoop” team, a group of four students that came up with an idea to more efficiently thread the cord that inevitably slips out of a hoodie, shorts or sweatpants. After researching the idea, coming up with a business plan and manufacturing the product, the Hoodie Hoop now sells for $7.99 a piece at www.hoodiehoop.weebly.com.

At Rolling Meadows High School we participated in the Educator Prep launch. Starting in their freshman year, students interested in the teaching profession are provided with an orientation to careers in education and are given opportunities to observe and teach in a variety of classroom environments and gain early college credit in courses related to education. As a matter of fact, all students in District 214 have the opportunity to earn college credits or gain certification in a number of areas.

In our visit to Wheeling High School Dr. Lazaro Lopez, Associate Superintendent, shared with us the need for high schools to be relevant and provide a career pathway informed by workplace learning experiences. The district has successfully engaged the business community and the institutions of higher education in the area and can thus provide the experiences while still in high school that most students would not have until after college graduation. Learn more about their programs at www.d214.org.


Public Schools: America’s Promise

My good friend Lew Finch, Executive Director of the Urban Education Network of Iowa, sent me this wonderful piece he wrote that I believe applies to states around America:

Other than parenting, and perhaps the ministry, serving in America’s public schools is the highest calling to which a person can aspire. It is the public school system that most accurately reflects the Promise of America, where everyone is welcome, regardless of economic status, religious conviction, gender, race, political persuasion, language of origin, or mental or physical challenge.

Iowa public schools continue to perform well notwithstanding the continued failure of a segment of the General Assembly and Governor to support adequate, reliable and equitable funding of the system. As a result of the lack of support, public schools across the state are forced to consider staff reductions, increased class-sizes, and a reduction of programs and services for students.

It comes at a time when our public schools are serving the most diverse student population than at any time in the history of the state. This is accompanied by higher expectations and the ever increasing demands of our complex society. While diversity contributes to a rich educational environment, it also elevates challenges and consequently, costs. Even our best schools are simply not good enough, despite graduating over 90% of Iowa students statewide. We still have more to accomplish. And these changes and challenges are confronting districts of all sizes.

When confronted about why the failure to adequately and equitably fund Iowa public schools, those responsible have a litany of responses including:” school districts need to be more efficient”; “you can’t simply throw money at the problem”; “there is insufficient state revenue”; “public schools should adopt practices used in the private sector”; “increased revenue will simply be given to teachers”. Let’s take a look at these responses.

“Public school districts need to be more efficient.” Any independent audit and analysis of public school management of resources will clearly demonstrate that the typical system is extremely efficient. As a result of such an audit and analysis in one of our districts by an independent task force, in a final report the opening statement of the task force chairperson was, “There is no wanton waste in this school district.” Many private companies could take a lesson in efficient management from the public school in their community.

“You can’t simply throw money at the problem.” I’ve served in public education for over fifty five years. Just once I’d like to see the decision makers “throw money” at the system. All financial resources directed to public schools will most likely be wisely and efficiently used on behalf of children. Historical endeavors, such as landing a man on the moon, have proven that large sums of money directed toward a specific public good, can accomplish what might previously been thought of as impossible. Let’s give it a try just once, i.e., “throw money at us”.

“There is insufficient state revenue.” This is the current favorite of those opposed to adequate, reliable and equitable funding. Guess what. The lack of revenue is self-imposed. A certain segment of the Iowa General Assembly and the Governor have determined that tax cuts for friends and supporters is a higher priority than investing in Iowa public schools. Don’t be fooled by the “insufficient revenue” excuse. It’s a question of values. The message to Iowans is clear, even our early pioneers knew better than to eat their seed corn! Continuing on the course of underfunding public schools is tantamount to mortgaging the future. This is unconscionable and must stop.

“Public schools should adopt practices used in the private sector.” How often have we heard this one? In an interview, the CEO of a very large manufacturing corporation was asked how they were able to produce a product of such high quality. The response was, “We start with the very best raw material, and if we get less than the best raw material, we throw it out and start over.” Thankfully, we in public schools do not select our raw material or “throw out” the less than perfect. Every child that enters the system is welcome, nurtured and entitled.

“Increased revenue will simply be given to teachers.” This comment often comes from some of the same people who admonish us to attract and retain the very best teachers and administrators possible. In all public schools, nearly eighty percent of the budget is invested in personnel because that is how we deliver the critical services. You can be assured very few people choose a profession in public school education to become rich. Too little invested in staff deprives students of meaningful attention and encourages the private sector to recruit low-paid talented teachers and administrators, scientists, mathematicians, and literate communicators from our ranks. Of course a good portion of revenue will, as it should, be invested in the employment and development of personnel.

Public schools continue to be America’s Promise. However, due to continued lack of adequate, reliable, and equitable funding coupled with unrealistic mandates, Iowa’s public schools, the very epitome of the American dream, are in serious jeopardy. Folks, this is no time for the timid or reticent. You and I must be willing to be visible, vocal advocates. Not just for school boards, administrators, teachers or even for the school system. We must be advocates for the thousands of children who arrive in Iowa’s public schools every day, and whose future well-being depends on what we do today.
Dr. Lew Finch, Executive Director
Urban Education Network of Iowa

Graduation Rates

A new Grad Nation Report is out that praises an all time high graduation rate of 82.3% while warning that we still have issues that need resolution. Although the numbers of high schools with low graduation rates has been declining (ESSA defines a low graduation rate high school as a school with one hundred or more students and a graduation rate of 67% or less) recent data shows that 52% of low graduation rate high schools are either charter, virtual or alternative schools.

Many of our superintendents have raised concerns over ineffective non-district managed charters and virtual schools that siphon both students and public dollars away from the public school systems only to have those students return to the system years later in need of significant remediation. The 52% statistic mentioned above is proof of that. In many states policy makers are persuaded by private entities to pass enabling legislature that allows parents to send their children to charter schools and virtual schools and have the tuition paid by public dollars coming from the school district’s tax base. Institutions that receive public dollars must be held to the same accountability measures as our public schools and when they fail they must be subject to the same penalties as the public institutions.

The Grad Nation Report also mentions differences in the graduation rates when additional years beyond the four come into play. At five years the graduation rate is 3% higher and at six years it goes up 4%. You have to wonder why we continue to be so enamored with framing achievement within rigid time frames, discounting the fact that we know that all children do not learn at the same rate at the same time. Why is it so important that a student graduate high school in four years as opposed to five or six, or three or two? There is an increasing number of students today that are graduating high school with an Associates Degree or a full year of college credits. Why must we insist on restricting students to unrealistic time frames?  Should not the goal be to have students graduate, period?

An increasing number of school systems are moving to personalize education and allow students to learn at their own pace, making achievement the goal, not time on task. Let’s begin to celebrate our students’ achievements regardless of how long it takes for them to get there.

The Digital Landscape: It’s Not Just the Technology

By Dan Domenech, AASA executive director

We’re seeing a revolution taking place in our classrooms and in our schools. This revolution is being driven by technology.

If we truly want to provide each and every child with the quality education they deserve, utilizing digital resources will be a major spoke in the process. Technology is enabling the personalizing of education in the 21st century.

In our book Personalizing 21st Century Education, Mort Sherman, John Brown and I describe technology-driven personalization going on at Innovations Early College High School where students can participate in:

  • Online, self-paced courses;
  • A rich range of multimedia-driven options for interactivity within the learning environment; and
  • Mastery-focused skills and concept progression via technology-enhanced learning modules.

Scores of superintendents across the country are leading successful models of digital transitions across the country in an effort to enable high-quality learning in their school systems.

However, these superintendents agree with me that it’s not just about putting a laptop in the hands of a child. It’s not about running to the store and purchasing the latest gadgets. It’s critical that a plan is in place prior to putting the mechanics in motion. Making the digital leap is popular but we need to be careful. The question remains: How will the technology enable children to learn?

Earlier this month, we were pleased to see superintendents who are engaged in the digital transition convene at Discovery Education as part of AASA’s Digital Consortium.

Said Gail Pletnick, superintendent of Arizona’s Dysart Unified School District, “As superintendents, we are so involved with our leadership roles, we forget to nurture ourselves as learners.” At the Consortium, we were especially pleased to see district leaders taking part in learning from the experiences of others.

Professional development plays a huge role in bringing about the transformation of teaching and learning in our schools and I applaud the superintendents who joined us and shared best practices and strategies for the benefit of others.

We look forward to our next Digital Consortium meeting this summer in Chicago.

I encourage you to contribute to the conversation. Please access #AASA_DigitalConsortium.

Personalized Education in Taylor County

I recently had the opportunity to listen to Superintendent Roger Cook speak about the great work he does for the Taylor County School District in Kentucky. He has been the superintendent there for seven years and only recently did he discover that what he does is now called personalized education. Taylor is one of the first districts in Kentucky to be named a District of Innovation, and why?

Students are not allowed to fail in Taylor County. Staff will work with each student until they get it right. It can happen because every student receives a personalized education and what they are learning is at the appropriate ability level, always. Consequently, Taylor has a zero percent drop-out rate. They also claim to have the highest graduation rate in the nation. It’s a performance based system where, in order for students to move on to higher content, they must achieve 90% mastery of the current content. They define it as “a system of teaching and learning that places students in grade-level content areas based on mental capacity rather than chronological age”.

Taylor provides every student with the opportunity to receive an education in six different ways. They can choose one of them or they can choose all six. There is actually a traditional program for students who may want that, or part of the time. This seems to have the lowest enrollment. Students can also participate in self-paced, project based, peer led and virtual programs. They also offer a Cardinal Academy that students can apply for but only one hundred students are selected. The students in the academy are totally self-directed and choose from the other five offerings.

Technology is used to facilitate the personalized process and the district has gained recognition from National School Boards Association and others. Learn more about the district by visiting http://www.taylor.kyschools.us