Internationally, Education & Superintendents Must be Champions for Children

A guest post by AASA Past President Amy Sichel

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

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

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

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


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

A Visit to Stewart’s Melville College in Scotland

A guest post by AASA President Gail Pletnick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

A guest post by AASA President Gail Pletnick

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

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

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

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

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


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

Scotland’s Mary Erskine School

A guest post by AASA Past President Amy Sichel  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A Look at Two Prominent Private Schools in Scotland

A guest post by AASA President Gail Pletnick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A Look at Personalized Learning in Scotland

A guest post by AASA President Gail Pletnick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The AASA International Seminar Takes Us to Scotland

A guest post by AASA Past President Amy Sichel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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