U.S. education is still the best in the world—but here’s what we can learn from others

The fact that we have to defend U.S. public education in the first place is puzzling.

“Learning Leadership” column, January 2012 edition of eSchool News—Defending public education in America is a daunting task. The fact that we have to defend public education in the first place is puzzling. Here we sit as the most powerful country in the world, with the largest economy, and the system responsible now and in the past for the education of close to 90 percent of our children is under attack. It makes you wonder how we ever became so prosperous.

Last year, I developed a PowerPoint presentation I named “The 95/5 Dilemma.” It is available on the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) web site at http://www.aasa.org/AASAblog-95-5-dilemma.aspx. In it, I provide benchmark statistic after benchmark statistic that prove conclusively: America’s public school system today is the best it has ever been. Graduation rates are the highest. Dropout rates are the lowest. Reading and math performances on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are the highest. College attendance rates are the highest. The rigor of the high school curriculum is the strongest ever.

These results support America’s economic and political leadership in the world. Those of us who are fortunate to travel around the world are not surprised when our overseas colleagues refer to our school system as the gold standard and when parents in every corner of the world want to send their children to American schools.…Read More

The key to doing more with less: Collaboration

The move is more than a mere change in facilities; it’s a process that might serve as a model for other education organizations on how to survive during hard economic times.

Learning Leadership column, Nov./Dec. 2011 edition of eSchool News—On Nov. 14, the American Association of School Administrators moved offices from our current location in Arlington, Va., to a building in nearby Alexandria now occupied by the National Association of Elementary School Principals. We have purchased half of the building from NAESP, and the two organizations plan to occupy the space together.

This move is more than a mere change in facilities. It is, in essence, a process being engaged in by the two associations that might well serve as a model for other education organizations on how to survive and thrive during hard economic times.

The economic recession that came upon us three years ago has had a major impact on all businesses, both for-profit and not-for-profit. The Washington, D.C. area, in addition to being the nation’s capital, is also home to more than 2,000 associations representing every conceivable interest. Many of these agencies have fallen upon hard times during the past three years.…Read More

Improving public education isn’t a mystery

Do we really want a system that will generate free thinkers, or are we leaning more toward institutions that will perpetuate a particular set of values?

Learning Leadership column, Oct. 2011 edition of eSchool News—What is the purpose of a public education system? In America, we would like to believe that our forefathers envisioned the creation of a strong democracy that would necessitate an educated populace capable of governing itself and use the acquired knowledge to elect and direct the actions of their representatives in government. Perhaps one of the reasons why public education is currently under attack is because it seems that we have not done a very good job in electing and directing our representatives. Their actions reflect badly on our wisdom—and, consequently, our system of education.

Our anger at members of Congress for their actions, or perhaps more accurately, their inactions, is misplaced. We put them there. They believe they are acting on our behalf. Therefore, when they bring our country to the brink of economic disaster and our nation’s weaknesses are exposed to the eyes of the world, we have to acknowledge that it is a mere reflection of the split nation we have become.

Education policy making has been affected by the same paralysis that grips other areas of lawmaking. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known in its current iteration as No Child Left Behind, languishes in our schools and classrooms, negatively affecting the public’s perception of the quality of our schools by virtue of the faulty accountability system that it created. Our lawmakers can no more reach agreement on a fix to our educational system than they can to our economic malaise.…Read More

New teacher evaluation framework promises to serve students, and educators, fairly

“We have seen over the past few months a strong backlash against unions and collective bargaining. … (But) essentially, improved labor-management relations are in the best interest of every district.”

Learning Leadership column, Sept. 2011 edition of eSchool News—The principal of P.S. 147 in Cambria Heights, N.Y., offered me a sixth-grade teaching position in September 1968. It was to be my first regular teaching assignment. Several weeks into the school year, Al Shanker, then president of the New York City United Federation of Teachers, called for a teacher strike. For several weeks that fall, I found myself walking the picket line with Al and my fellow teachers. As the strike progressed, unsettled, I took a job on Wall Street to make ends meet. I was getting married that January, and I had bills to pay.

Fortunately, the strike came to an end before the holidays, and I resumed my teaching career. I experienced another teacher strike in New York City before I left the classroom and then several others after I became an administrator. During the 30 years I spent in New York, the unions and collective bargaining were very much embedded in every aspect of education. Negotiations often were contentious and bitter, particularly if they culminated in a strike. As a superintendent, I learned to work with the unions and walk that fine line between teacher compensation and working conditions and my responsibility to the taxpayers and the students we served. Harmonious relationships were always in the best interest of the students, as long as both sides were fair-minded and willing to compromise.

In February, the American Association of School Administrators co-sponsored a conference in Denver along with the U.S. Department of Education, the two teacher unions, the National School Boards Association, the Council of Great City Schools, and the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. The conference focused on how labor-management collaboration could lead to enhanced student learning. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is a strong proponent of that process, and he invited 125 school districts from around the country to participate in the conference with teams consisting of the superintendent, the union president, and the school board president. Amazingly, more than 200 districts applied to attend the conference.…Read More

Schools need relief from onerous regulation

The National School Boards Association and AASA have launched a petition to the Education Department and Congress asking for regulatory relief.

Learning Leadership column, July/August edition of eSchool NewsThe Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), renamed under its last reiteration as No Child Left Behind, was due for reauthorization three years ago. NCLB, as it is popularly referred to, brought a new level of federal intrusion into local school district affairs. A surprising development, given that the law was spearheaded by a conservative Republican administration that, in previous years, had threatened to dissolve the U.S. Department of Education and take the federal government out of the business of education.

In the 10 years that NCLB has been in place, the law has been praised and cursed. It was originally praised for its intent to leave no child behind—to close the widening achievement gap that exists between the haves and have-nots. Whereas in the past, school systems reported their performance using the statistical mean, NCLB required districts to disaggregate their data and report the performance of categories of students by race, poverty level, language dominance, and special needs. This uncovered a very different performance profile. Districts that in the past prided themselves on the mean performance of all of their students found themselves apologizing for the poor performance of sub-categories previously hidden in the averages. That was a good thing.

Unfortunately, the makers of the law got carried away with their metrics as they further developed the concept of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Under that rubric, school districts had to specify increasing levels of academic achievement that eventually would lead to all children meeting their state’s level of required performance by 2014. Furthermore, each year, each sub-category of students in each school would be required to meet the established performance benchmark or be labeled as having failed to achieve AYP. If one sub-category in one school failed to achieve AYP, the entire school would be deemed to have failed AYP. If a school in a district failed to achieve AYP, the entire district was deemed to have failed AYP.…Read More

Clearing up some misunderstandings of the superintendency

The superintendency is probably one of the least understood jobs in education.

“Learning Leadership” column, May 2011 issue of eSchool News—I became a superintendent at the age of 32. By that time I had received my doctorate from Hofstra University in education research, and I remember one of my psychology professors telling the class of would-be superintendents that we were not paranoid if we thought somebody was coming after us.

I have learned over the years that my old professor was right, and that paranoia is a very useful skill for superintendents to hone. So today, with education under attack—with salaries, pensions, and benefits coming under scrutiny, and governors proposing caps on the salaries of superintendents—we are not being paranoid; they really are after us.

The superintendency is probably one of the least understood jobs in education. Few people know what a superintendent does. My friends used to think that, because I was in education, I had off summers and all of the days when school was closed. They also thought that my hours were the same as the school day. The reality is that superintendents are on 24-7, which makes sense when you consider that they bear total responsibility for everything that happens in the school district.…Read More

Viewpoint: Scarce resources, insufficient talent threaten to sink public education

Our disadvantaged students are about to encounter the “perfect storm.”

Learning Leadership column for eSchool News, April 2011—Where are we going? What’s going to happen? Those are legitimate questions regarding the future of public education in America.

Back in the summer of 2008, when I first started work as executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, the future seemed bright. We were in the midst of a presidential election and, regardless of who won the election, changes were bound to happen. Both Democrats and Republicans seemed disenchanted with No Child Left Behind, and both candidates promised changes to some degree. Then the unthinkable happened: the bottom fell out of our economy and we entered the Great Recession. Mr. Obama won the election, and immediately economic recovery became the priority of the new administration.

Linda Darling Hammond had been Mr. Obama’s chief advisor on education issues, so it was no surprise when she was selected to head the education transition team. I have known Linda since our days in New York, and I was delighted when we were invited to meet with her and her team. The discussions were robust, and we were excited by the emphasis on areas like early childhood education, teacher professional development, and the assessment of English language learners and special-education students. Talk of a plan to rescue the economy shifted our attention to providing input on education spending that would help stimulate the economy.  School construction and maintenance, along with expenditures in technology infrastructure and hardware, seemed like appropriate suggestions. I recall seeing Anne Bryant, executive director for the National School Boards Association, leading a group of her members to meet with Congressional delegations while carrying little shovels that said “We have projects that are shovel ready.”…Read More

Viewpoint: School leaders need more help, and not red tape, to transform education

AASA advocates ‘to ensure that no additional harm is done by well-meaning legislators who do not realize the potential havoc their actions will wreak upon an already overburdened [education
(Editor’s note: This article appeared in the “Learning Leadership” section of the March 2011 edition of eSchool News.)

The American Association of School Administrators’ mission has evolved into an advocacy role. As the oldest and largest organization representing school superintendents and other school system leaders, AASA now sees its primary function as the voice of school administrators in the nation’s capital. In fulfillment of that function, AASA’s Executive Committee and Governing Board met at the National Conference on Education in Denver last month to approve the association’s legislative agenda.

Advocating on behalf of public education is critical at a time when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is due to be reauthorized, and our public system of education seems to be under constant attack from the media and self-appointed “reformers.” Regardless of the opinion those outside of education might hold, it is those of us who have long worked within the system who know it best and can bring about the changes that will lead to a high-quality education for all of our children.…Read More

Viewpoint: How we should improve on NCLB

AASA hopes educators and school reformers will work together to improve NCLB.

(Editor’s note: This article marks the debut of a new monthly column from AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech on school leadership. It appeared in the Feb. 2011 issue of eSchool News.)

From Feb. 17-19, the “Great Education Conversation” will take place in Denver as part of the American Association of School Administrators’ national conference. It will be a dialogue between traditional educators and those the media has branded as reformers.

Though we all share the same goal—providing our children with the best education possible—we differ as to the means to achieve that goal. AASA’s thinking is that we might be better off working together than at odds with each other. In line with that theme, the conference will be preceded by two days of “conversations” between superintendents, school board presidents, and labor union presidents, intent on advancing student achievement through improved labor-management relations. The event is being jointly sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, AASA, the National School Boards Association, the Council of Great City Schools, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association; the Ford Foundation is underwriting this invitation-only event.…Read More