Public education’s role in a democratic society–and what it takes to be a successful school leader–were the main themes of the American Association of School Administrators’ 136th Annual Conference and Exposition, held Feb. 19-23 in San Francisco.

Keynote speeches explored the role of the public school in America and the qualities needed for successful school governance in the 21st century. Participants agreed a chief concern was bridging the achievement gap between poor and minority students and their more affluent peers–a challenge many exhibiting companies aimed to address with software intended to identify struggling students and tailor instruction to help them succeed.

AASA also unveiled a new online master’s degree program for aspiring school principals, and several individuals were honored for their outstanding educational achievements–including AASA’s Superintendent of the Year and eSchool News’ Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award winners (see accompanying story, page 29).

The conference began with a keynote speech from John Goodlad, founder and president of the Seattle-based Institute for Educational Inquiry and a celebrated author. Goodlad, who helped found the Center for Educational Renewal at the University of Washington and also served as dean of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education, was blunt in his criticism of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal education law that requires annual testing of students in grades three through eight in reading and math.

“Test scores correlate with no social virtue,” said Goodlad. “The mission of education in a democracy is to stress not just the academic, not just the personal, not just the social, but all of those.”

Goodlad’s opening remarks preceded a number of sessions examining NCLB and its provisions. Staffers from the U.S. Department of Education were on hand to discuss key requirements of the law, and they urged superintendents to call the department’s new toll-free hotline (888-NCLBSUP) for answers to their questions.

Meanwhile, in a Feb. 20 luncheon session, two superintendents revealed they are considering challenging the law in federal court.

John J. Mackiel, superintendent of Omaha Public Schools in Nebraska, and Frederick Morton, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in Virginia, said they are pursuing possible legal action against the federal government for not providing adequate resources to help schools comply with NCLB. Though no lawsuits have been filed yet, Mackiel reportedly said other districts could join Omaha in a class-action suit if the district moves forward with its plan.

From good to great

The vagaries and difficulties of NCLB aside, schools don’t have to be limited from achieving greatness by their circumstances, according to Jim Collins, author of the book Good to Great, which identifies the common principles shared by companies that have made the leap from “good” to “great.”

In his keynote speech Feb. 20, Collins said these same principles can be applied to schools.

For one thing, he said, the process takes time–it’s never tied to a single momentous decision, but rather the cumulative effect of several smaller decisions over time. Also, the move from good to great starts with great people, then proceeds with great ideas, and only then results in great action.

“It’s not people who are your greatest asset,” Collins said. “It’s the right people.”

Great leaders have a tenacious will and an ambition for the success of the enterprise as a whole, not just themselves, Collins said. They attribute their institution’s successes to the team as a whole but accept full responsibility for its failures. They’re also able to keep faith in their ability to succeed, while not being blinded to the “brutal facts” of the difficulties they face.

It’s safe to say these qualities characterize Bill McNeal, superintendent of the Wake County Public School System in North Carolina, who before Collins’ speech was named AASA’s 2004 National Superintendent of the Year.

McNeal, a “home-grown” leader who worked his way up the ranks from social studies teacher to superintendent during his 30-year career with the Wake County schools, heads a district of 109,000 students that is growing at a clip of nearly 5 percent a year.

Since becoming superintendent, McNeal has focused all of the school system’s energies on meeting the goal of having 95 percent of third and eighth graders achieving at or above grade level. He has helped narrow the district’s achievement gap while continuing to challenge its most advanced students.

“I have the best group of children you will find anywhere, and their parents are not so bad either,” he said. “I have a team that supports me, protects me, and covers up my mistakes. I will do my best not to embarrass them.”

McNeal’s record also proves he understands the role technology can play in raising student achievement.

His district has piloted the use of an internet-based television system to narrow the achievement gap by creating a library of video lessons that students who are struggling to meet certain standards can use to help them get up to speed. Wake County also just announced a partnership with Wayne, Pa.-based firm Kenexa to implement a web-based system for screening potential teachers. The system reportedly can predict the ability of candidates to relate with students and exhibit good judgment.

To help foster more school leaders like McNeal, AASA announced the launch of an online master’s degree program that will prepare would-be principals for the demands of today’s school climate.

The program consists of 10 online courses that can be purchased for delivery by any accredited institution. Courses, which include “Ensuring Quality Education for Students with Diverse Needs,” “Using Data to Strengthen Schools,” and “Collaborating with Families and Communities for Student Success,” were developed by Los-Angeles-based professional development firm Canter & Associates.

Walden University, an online institution based in Minneapolis, Minn., is the first school to offer the degree program, with some 40 students already enrolled.

School accountability solutions

Many of the conference’s nearly 300 exhibitors demonstrated software designed to improve school accountability.

For instance, Renaissance Learning–probably best known for its Accelerated Reader software–demonstrated a new program called Standards Master, a solution intended to help school systems prepare their students for end-of-year exams, ensuring that all students can meet state standards in reading, math, and language arts.

The program consists of four formative assessments given to students throughout the year, each correlated with the state standards that students are expected to meet. Students can take the assessments either online or with a pencil and paper. The tests pinpoint the skills students still need to master, and they offer prescriptions for improvement that are aligned with Renaissance Learning’s instructional software.

Renaissance Learning also previewed a new solution that was formally announced in March. Called Renaissance Place, it’s a web-based information system that integrates state test data with information from Standards Master and the company’s entire line of curriculum products, bringing all of this information together into a single platform that will allow educators at all levels to monitor their students’ progress and improve teaching and learning.

Standards Master and Renaissance Place mark a shift in the company’s focus from classroom and school-based products to enterprise-level solutions, said Art Stellar, Renaissance Learning’s new chief education officer. Stellar joins the company after 17 years as a superintendent for a number of districts, including Oklahoma City, where he helped reduce the number of state-defined “at risk” schools from 32 to three over seven years.

Also, Software Technology Inc. (STI), of Mobile, Ala., unveiled a low-cost solution for meeting the highly qualified teacher and paraprofessional reporting requirements of NCLB. STIPD (STI Professional Development) is a web-based program that can identify non-highly qualified teachers and paraprofessionals in a district’s schools; monitor the expiration of credentials for certified staff members and paraprofessionals; create and track parent notification letters; manage all district-approved professional development activities; and allow the immediate application of all professional development activities toward the renewal of teacher certifications and paraprofessional credentials, the company said.

Safety & security technologies

The National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM), with funding and encouragement from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has initiated a project to help schools achieve greater levels of safety, health, and security by reducing and managing risks for a wide range of contingencies, NASFM announced at the conference.

The association’s Safe & Secure Schools project is moving forward on three tracks. One track is engaged in conducting a thorough review of risks and developing methodologies school administrators can use to prioritize the risks faced by their schools. A second track is evaluating, integrating and, where necessary, creating tools to help schools prevent and respond to a range of hazards. These tools include performance standards and requirements for safety and security technologies, model policies and procedures, and best practices. The third track is focused on determining how best to help school districts fund the safety and security enhancements they will need, and in helping schools to build community confidence in the safety and security measures they have taken.

Research began in the fall of 2003. Initial project offerings are expected to be ready for testing with select school districts in the spring of 2004.

“The goal of the Safe & Secure Schools project is to help schools decide for themselves which measures they need to take to become truly safer and more secure, in the most cost-effective way possible,” said James A. Burns, NASFM president and fire administrator for New York state. “Schools that successfully deal with issues of life safety, protection of property, and continuity of operations can then focus their efforts and resources where they belong–on education.”

NASFM is undertaking the initiative along with a number of partners and advisors, including Honeywell International and the National Infrastructure Institute.

Ingersoll-Rand (IR) Education Solutions promoted its Safe Schools Perimeter Security Program, an all-in-one, easy-to-use system for securing the perimeter of a school building. Available in 4, 8, 12, and 16-door packages, the program includes electronic access control, digital video recording, alarm monitoring, camera control, photo ID badging, and a visitor tracking system. IR says its system is completely scalable to fit any school’s needs.

IC Corporation–a division of International Truck and Engine Corp.–demonstrated new technologies for keeping students safe on the way to and from school. IC’s latest school buses come with kid-friendly escape hatches, rear door alarms, and switches on the steering wheel to activate warning lights and open bus doors. Before drivers can lock the bus for the night, an alarm requires them to walk to the back of the bus, open and close the rear door, and return to the front, thereby ensuring that “no child is left behind.”

Other exhibitor news

Preferred Educational Software, of Byron, Ill., demonstrated The Administrative Observer, software that enables school administrators to create high-quality staff evaluations using a Palm or Pocket PC handheld computer. Once an observation or evaluation is complete, you can sync to your desktop computer and print your finished report, enabling you to give immediate feedback after a classroom visit. The desktop version of the software requires a PC running the Windows operating system.

Maynard, Mass.-based Virtual High School Inc. (VHS) said it has signed an agreement with the Massachusetts Department of Education to create an Online Advanced Placement Academy for the state’s high school students. The department has awarded $693,000 to VHS this year, with a potential three-year award of $2.1 million, to create a virtual school that will deliver pre-AP and AP courses online to low-income and rural schools.

The courses will target Massachusetts schools where at least 40 percent of students are on free or reduced-price lunch programs. The goal is to increase the participation of low-income students in AP-level courses, and program officials say they expect to serve at least 52 targeted schools.

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American Association of School Administrators