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Three key takeaways from this year’s National Conference on Education

We were exposed to three great presenters who challenged us to consider the value of great leadership in our schools, valid and reliable assessments of our students and teachers, and the creative and entrepreneurial elements of our public education system.

Learning Leadership column, April 2013 edition of eSchool NewsThis year’s National Conference on Education, from the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), was held in Los Angeles in February. More than 2,500 superintendents and other K-12 administrators attended the event. The general sessions featured three notable presenters who focused on the transformational theme that prevailed throughout the conference.

Leadership in our schools is recognized as essential to high-quality education. Best-selling author Jim Collins has focused on the world of business in “Good to Great” and “Great by Choice”—but prior to his session at the conference, we spent an hour on the phone going over the issues affecting education today. His remarks zeroed in on leadership at the school level, particularly the role of the K-12 principal. His thinking is that the theories he advances in his books apply to school leaders as much as they do to the titans of industry [see story here].

Superintendents will agree with Collins that the right principal can make all the difference in turning around a troubled school or maintaining a high level of performance in an already successful program. Collins spoke about an Arizona study that focused on two schools with similar demographics, but one school excelled academically while the other one did not. The study revealed that the difference was not extraneous variables such as funding, parental involvement, or class size. The difference was the principal.

I believe that the U.S. Department of Education might be well aware of this fact, because all of its models for turning schools around include a change in school leadership. Unfortunately, that requirement takes the superintendent out of the equation and has created problems for rural and small suburban school systems that have difficulty recruiting for the position. The problem might not always be a dysfunctional leader. It could be a lack of resources and inadequate personnel. This is a decision that should be made at the district level, not in Washington, D.C.

But to get back to Collins, he went on to talk about his trademark “BHAGs”: Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals. Great leaders are relentless in their pursuit of BHAGs, but once they achieve them they cannot rest on their laurels. Ongoing progress is essential, but it must be balanced with maintaining the core values and not pursuing change for the sake of change.

Linda Darling-Hammond was the general session speaker on day two. Linda is undoubtedly one of the most knowledgeable education researchers in the field. During President Obama’s first campaign for the presidency, Linda was one of his chief education policy advisors. She agrees with many of us that No Child Left Behind had noble goals, but unfortunately, many unintended consequences as well.

We are all aware of the narrowing of the curriculum that has occurred as schools chased the acquisition of Adequate Yearly Progress. We have also become test-centric, and now the test mania has worked its way into the evaluation of teachers. After a number of studies, Linda is reconsidering the use of value-added measures in teacher evaluations [see story here]. The approach seems to lack the reliability necessary to make it a valid form of measurement. She cited examples where the same teacher’s performance varied greatly from year to year, proving to be more a measure of unknown variables than of the teacher’s ability.

She does not question that student performance should figure in a teacher’s evaluation. It is more a matter of how that performance is measured and how it will figure in the evaluation process. For the time being, the value-added approach does not yield the stability and validity necessary to warrant its use.

Linda is also a proponent of the Common Core State Standards and has been active in the development of the Common Core assessments. She believes that implementation of the Common Core standards will necessitate changes in how teachers teach and how they are supported. Linda is very familiar with the differences in the professional development of our teachers in comparison to teacher development in many of the countries that fare significantly better than us on international comparisons. The Common Core will require a move away from the “recall-recognition-knowledge”-based pedagogy prevalent in our classrooms and toward an “analysis-evaluation-synthesis” pedagogy that calls for higher-order thinking skills on the part of our students and a very different approach to teaching.

Coincidentally, I recently read a blog from Diane Ravitch were she comes out against the Common Core. Diane correctly fears that we are not doing enough to prepare teachers for this sea change in education—and the results will be a precipitous drop in student performance accompanied by renewed cries from our critics that public education is failing.

That is, indeed, a shame, because we need a challenging national curriculum, and one more rigorous than what is currently in place—but, as Diane argues, states are rushing to implement the Common Core all at once, rather than doing it in stages and delaying the assessments until teachers have been trained to implement it effectively and students have the opportunity to demonstrate mastery.

That brings me to our third speaker in Los Angeles, Yong Zhao, professor of technology and education policy at the University of Oregon. I had not heard him before, and I was delighted by his tongue-in-cheek delivery and insightful observations. Ever since the relentless attach began on our public schools, I have been espousing what I refer to as the “95/5 Dilemma.” I suggest that the five percent of dysfunctional schools in our country are defining the remaining 95 percent. I state, with the evidence to prove it, that our public schools today are the best they have ever been. Unfortunately, half of our African-American and Latino students and many of our children of poverty are not getting the same quality of education that most of our white, middle-class students are getting.

Zhao extolls the creative and entrepreneurial virtues of American education and wonders why we would want to create the “sausage factory”-type schooling that characterizes education in many of the Asian countries we compare with unfavorably in international tests. He claims that those countries do a great job in preparing students to be excellent test-takers, but not to develop the creativity and innovation that has made us the most powerful nation in the world. He asserts that the Chinese education system is built to mass-produce test-takers who can fill non-creative jobs in that society. Why should we want to be like them? He sees the Common Core as yet another attempt to get us into the sausage-making business.

“American education,” Zhao says, “is not in decline. It’s not getting worse. It’s always been bad, bad at test-taking.” The measure of greatness, however, is not a multiple-choice test response.

We were exposed to three great presenters who challenged us to consider the value of great leadership in our schools, valid and reliable assessments of our students and teachers, and the creative and entrepreneurial elements of our public education system—reminding us why we have achieved greatness as a nation. You should have been there, but if you were not, next year you can catch AASA’s National Conference on Education in Nashville, Feb. 13-15. See you there.

Daniel A. Domenech is executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

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