Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Visioning Network districts standing tall despite criticism

The controversy surrounding STAAR and end-of-course exams has been a powder keg for months. With his speech at Midwinter calling the state’s testing system a “perversion of its original intent,” Commissioner Robert Scott tossed a match right in the middle of it.

It’s no secret that school leaders, teachers, parents and students have long been frustrated with an over-emphasis on standardized testing, but the recent uproar has given a unique chance for school districts to highlight the visioning work TASA has led the last few years, and talk about how that vision has now become a mission, specifically Mission: School Transformation.

The North Texas Regional Consortium has been leading the way in going public with its visioning work and this week the Dallas Morning News ran a detailed story on their efforts.

The story pointed out that the consortium is made up of high-performing districts serving students from across the economic and demographic spectrum and included a graphic listing the districts’ four-year graduation rates and rates for students who are college-ready in math and English. The rates are all well above the state average and, in most cases, are stellar.

“Consortium members say their complaints can’t be dismissed as sour grapes, because they’ve done well on the TAKS and expect to succeed with the STAAR,” the story reads.

Still, Texas Association of Business president and CEO Bill Hammond told the Dallas Morning News that the high-performing districts are complaining about higher standards and he’s not impressed with their success, going so far as to call them “the tallest of the midgets.”

I don’t think the parents in Allen, Coppell, Frisco, Highland Park, Lewisville, McKinney, Plano Northwest, Richardson or Plano feel that way. And I know the students in those high-performing district would shatter that characterization. 

School district leaders believe in their students and strive every day to help them reach their potential. They welcome accountability but will not back down on delivering the message that our current system’s over reliance on standardized, high stakes testing is detrimental to our public schools and undermining any chance that educators have to transform a traditional system of schooling into a broad range of learning experiences that better prepares our students to live successfully and be competitive on a global stage.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Bloggers' Lounge: What did you think?

A new treat at this year’s Midwinter Conference was the Bloggers’ Lounge. This centrally located space, sponsored by SMART and hosted by #BlogathonATX and, featured seating for over 30 attendees and their electronic devices. With power sources for computers and phones spread throughout the area, the lounge became a place to recharge batteries as well as brains. Attendees used the area to perform remote work, document new strategies they learned in sessions, or simply check in with the office back home. 

Aside from the Lounge itself, professional writers, bloggers and social media enthusiasts were on hand to attend and blog about various speaker presentations. These bloggers continued the conversation back at the Bloggers’ Lounge by moderating post-session Q&As with presenters such as Alan November, Scott Kinney, Tom Burnett, and more. These informal sessions allowed attendees to delve further into presentation topics and gave speakers an opportunity to address attendees in an informal environment. 

In addition to writers, the Lounge provided technical support for attendees needing advice on blogging platforms, search engine optimization strategies and other issues affecting bloggers. #BlogathonATX representatives, Ilene Haddad and Julie Gomoll, presented a Q&A session about social media and blog management. 

The Bloggers’ Lounge team kept attendees up-to-date with frequent posts to Twitter using the hashtag #TASAmw. Messages included everything from session highlights to reports from the floor of the Education Expo. People were able to view these updates in real time via TASA’s Midwinter smartphone app, as well as on a large SMART Board inside the Lounge.

We’d love feedback on the lounge, or, if you missed it, let us know if it’s something you’d like to experience next year.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Superintendents: Our Strength, Our Voice, Our Future

By Cedric Tealer

I attended a presentation at the 2012 TASA Midwinter Conference entitled “Superintendents: Our Strength, Our Voice, Our Future,” presented by Joseph Scherer, Ph.D.  Dr. Scherer passionately articulated the impetus behind the whitepaper, “Creating a New Vision for Public Education in Texas,” which came from the work of 35 public school superintendents in the state of Texas. This document outlines the reasons why superintendents should step forward and generate the dialogue necessary to drive positive change within our educational system.  Here are the highlights: 

Why is this an issue?
The need for this document was born from frustration with the current public education system. This system, which is in a comparative decline internationally, graduates a disproportionate number of under-prepared students who do not go on to complete their college educations.

What’s the goal?
Currently, political and business leaders are the ones changing the direction of education. The purpose of the new vision is to begin a disciplined dialogue that stimulates questions and formulates ideas. Ultimately, this dialogue would serve to identify problems and frame issues. Experienced educators need to take over and drive this conversation to bring change.

What’s the urgency?
The United States no longer offers the premier educational system in the world. American students continue to show low competency levels in math, reading, and science, resulting in a growing skills and opportunity gap. This ever-widening gap leads to significant numbers of unemployed and under skilled workers.

Why is this dialogue essential?
Currently, dialogue surrounding public education reform is based on feelings and values, rather than knowledge and facts. Simple discussions regarding complex educational issues don’t typically result in real change. Experienced educators must take charge and frame the tough questions in order to control and create meaningful conversations.

Why should superintendents lead the charge?
Because they are ultimately responsible for educating our children, superintendents must be the ones to lead this movement for change. They have a clear understanding of the real issues, know how to marshal resources, and are looking for sustainable change rather than temporary solutions.

Dr. Scherer emphasized that it is time for superintendents to join in and lend their voices to the dialogue and create a new vision for public education in Texas. Given the current state of education, it is important that superintendents unite quickly and lead the way to educational reform.

Spotlight on SMART Education Solutions

By Eric Weiss

Classroom presentation equipment has evolved since the dusty days of chalk and blackboards. By using new technology such as digital projection, motion recognition, and its own DViT (Digital Vision Touch) technology, SMART Education Solutions has come up with the next step in classroom presentation and interaction.

The SMART Board Interactive Whiteboard allows teachers to maintain seamless learning environments. There is no longer a need to interrupt classroom discussions in order to present information on a computer. By using gestures to interact with software directly on the SMART Board, teachers can maintain students’ attention and interest.

Intuitive hand and finger gestures allow teachers to open and close applications, zoom and rotate objects, flip through pages, and much more. Interactivity is truly in the instructors’ hands!

Because the system acts as a projector, just about anything can be displayed in front of the class, including videos and websites. SMART Ink pens allow teachers to write, circle, and diagram on top of applications. Handwriting is automatically smoothed out for increased legibility and can be moved around the screen by using hand gestures. The digital eraser works just like the ones used to clear whiteboards. Saving a capture of the screen is as simple as saving a PDF or PPT document. Files can also be loaded directly into any Microsoft Office 2010 application.

The SMART Board system reacts quickly by using cameras to identify when someone switches between a finger, pen or eraser. Many of the models allow two people to interact simultaneously, encouraging collaboration between teachers and students.

Because the system is self-contained, there is no longer a need to run wires and cables across the classroom and hope each device works with the others. Just connect to a computer, and the teacher is ready to teach.

The SMART Board system is an amazing piece of classroom technology that enhances the teaching experience and increases student engagement.

Engaging the Community in Creating a New Vision for Education in Lewisville ISD

By Crystal R. R. Edwards

Lewisville ISD, in the heart of the DFW Metroplex, spans many miles and towns. The idea of cohesion is almost laughable amongst 52,000 students, 63 schools, 13 municipalities and 72 languages “as of yesterday,” quips Superintendent Stephen Waddell.

And yet somewhere, amidst the diversity, Waddell and assistant superintendent Penny Reddell found a single, simple question that unified thousands of voices: “What is your highest hope for your student?”

Asking that question opened the floodgates of public discourse, and they called in Shannon Buerk, the Chief Learning Officer of engage! Learning Organization, to help them direct the flow. Ms. Buerk led the process for Lewisville ISD, using TASA's Visioning Network document. “What followed," said Reddell, “changed us all.”

In this presentation, Waddell, Reddell, and Buerke, described the early parts of their visioning process. In its infancy it faced some challenges, including that of having a new superintendent in the first place. But before too long, Reddell said, people began to react in positive ways. “Everyone was spellbound by the idea of ‘future,’” she said. “They began to ask, ‘How can we have this come true?’”

The answer lay in a series of efforts. First came the summits, where every person in the community with something to share came and expressed themselves. The information presented at the summits was distilled and turned into survey questions. From the answers to the surveys, focus groups were developed. Once the focus groups were heard and understood, the difficult work of creating strategic design teams was underway. 

Buerke discussed the results of the visioning process. 

“This didn’t require a buy-in from the community at first. But we didn’t need a buy-in. This is about creating something together. We wanted them to know their ideas were valued, which is very different from what ‘buy-in’ indicates: ‘I want you to think like me.’ This was broad-based input. Up until now, each community had been working in silos, and they were not unified. By going to the district as a whole, by listening to the district as a whole, we found each community began to bond with one another over the shared goals.”

Over 3,500 voices were heard throughout the process, with some 400 people in focus groups alone and more than 1,500 taking part in the online survey. “This was a process of connecting people together,” Waddell said. “Through dialogue -- that’s key. Going into a room and coming back out with a visioning plan isn’t key, it’s just talking.”

Transparency became a guiding principle during this dialogue and Buerke told attendees that all of the information they used -- from footage during the summits to the surveys used -- can be found online. They have also developed five blogs, one for each of the high schools, to give daily news about the campuses and programs. A newsletter is also available for subscription.

Which brings us to the present day. Not even one full year into his tenure as superintendent, Waddell now stands at a critical point. The project teams have nearly come to a consensus -- yes, that’s “nearly,” and consensus is a requirement. A few more meetings, a few more tweaks, and Waddell feels they will be ready for the next steps: taking the entire plan for the district before the community for forum events, and after that, receiving final approval from the school board.

John Horn talks about engaging students in higher levels of learning

This year’s TASA Midwinter conference lined up some excellent speakers.  I had the pleasure of sitting in on Dr. John Horn’s presentation “Engaging Students:  The Essential Strategy for Creating Higher Levels of Learning." 
Horn spent 15 years spent as superintendent of Mesquite ISD.  He was named superintendent of the year in 1995 and was chosen as one of the top five superintendents in Texas in 1993. In 1999, Horn was the recipient of the Golden Deeds for Education Award.  
Horn now works as a Senior Associate for the Schlechty Center.  The Schlechty Center partners with schools and school districts and focuses on enhancing student engagement and helping to transform schools into learning organizations.  
Horn believes in order to transform your school into a learning organization you must understand:
  • Why compliance is not enough
  • The role of student motivation in learning
  • The essential nature of designing student work that results in engagement
  • The importance of system transformation
  • The relation of this focus to the Texas Visioning Network
When students are engaged, they are attentive, persistent, and committed.  Students value and find meaning in the work and learn what they are expected to learn.  In order to engage students, you must find their motivation.  Why do students do the work they are asked to do?  How does why they do the work impact what they learn from the work?
In the Past
We worked on:
  • The kids
  • The teachers
  • The principals
  • The curriculum
In the Future
We must now focus on:
  • Working on the work we give students to get them engaged.
  • Working on the relationships we have with the students.
  • Working on the systems that support engagement. 
Redefine Your Core
Horn believes most schools need to redefine their core business. 
“Where we live today has us basing our core values as a factory organization instead of the learning organization,” he said.
Horn believes  “teaching just to compliance levels won’t work for our students.”  Students must learn past rote memory in order to reach profound learning, where learning is retained and can be applied.  
Horn has spent the past four years helping East Central ISD transform into a learning organization.  Dr. Patti Birney, assistant superintendent for ECISD, spoke on behalf of the work they are doing in her district. 
“Change is messy and engaging students is not easy,” she said.  Their teachers now design lessons for engagement and have seen a tremendous positive change in their schools.  
One of the most important things to take away from Horn’s message is to get to know your students.  Get to know the who, when trying to engage and motivate.  
You can contact John Horn at 972-965-7501 or for more information.  To read more about engaging your school, check out Phil Schlechty’s books