Charters, vouchers and DeVos: Are your schools poised to rise or fail?

By Suhail Farooqui, CEO, K12 Insight

Today, our schools face the defining challenge of a generation, perhaps their entire existence. Until five years ago, few dared utter the words “market share” in the context of public schools.

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Suhail Farooqui is CEO of K12 Insight.

The term simply did not exist. Even now, there are those in schools who would swear it doesn’t.

But, as a new administration takes over in Washington and a newly minted secretary of education rolls out an agenda fueled by choice and school vouchers, education leaders face an inescapable reality: Like it or not, competition is coming to America’s public schools.

Public school advocates say schools should focus on serving students, not looking over their shoulders at the competition. Choice advocates say alternative schools wouldn’t exist if public schools were doing a better job at schooling.

Here’s the thing: Choice is not about pitting public schools against alternative schools. It’s about helping students and families discover the education that’s right for them. For millions of Americans, public schools are that choice–or, could be.

Educators in all schools, public and otherwise, must embrace a choice mindset–one that says we will earn the trust of every student and parent who enters our doors and we will figure out a way to keep them and we will keep them. In systems where students and families chose out, educators should return to the ones who they’ve lost and ask what they could have done differently.

It’s time to stop running scared. Public school leaders, this is a call to action.

A total school experience

Whenever we talk about improving schools, instinctively we look to classrooms. Every student deserves a quality education and every school should offer one. But if you think education alone is the cure, you’re missing the bigger picture.

The school experience extends beyond the four walls of the classroom. Every interaction you have with parents and students and teachers is an opportunity to win them over, to show them why your school system is the right choice. You need to build your brand. I’m not talking about media buys and billboards. That stuff is expensive and it’s beneath you. At its core, marketing is about telling the story of your success. That story starts where it should, with the people you serve every day.

The best decision you can make is to systematically engage your stakeholders–be it parents, teachers, students or staff–in honest conversations about what’s working and not working in your schools. That system rests on two fundamental pillars:

  1. Velvet-glove customer service
  2. Deep listening to help you manage critical issues on the horizon

No.1 Velvet-glove customer service

Plenty of school leaders bristle at the notion of parents or students or teachers as customers. Schools teach; they don’t sell. Truth is, schools perform customer service every day. Students come to class, parents call with questions, teachers and community members email. Sometimes they vent on social media. You need a way to bring all of this feedback together, to effectively measure the critical nature of each issue, and to respond with care and timeliness.

We have data from more than 200 school systems. If a parent receives a response from their child’s school in 24 hours or less, that parent, on average, will score that interaction an eight or nine out of 10. If the same response is issued 48 hours later, the average score drops to two or three out of 10. Research shows that parents don’t have to agree with your decision. But they do need that validation of being heard. This is the difference between broadcasting information and fostering meaningful engagement.

No. 2 Deep listening

Inviting feedback is important, but there will be times when you need to go deeper than that. Understand what teachers and parents and students expect of you annually. Dedicate time each year to ask your community a series of well-thought-out questions. Give people plenty of ways to respond to those questions, in different languages where needed. Once you’ve compiled the data and you’re ready to act, explain your choices clearly and make sure parents and teachers and others know how their feedback contributed to your decisions.

Make an effort to connect with those who have left your schools. Consider an exit or alumni survey to get a sense for how well your schools prepare students for their future, or why families chose out in favor of other options. What you learn from these conversations will surprise you.

The debate over school choice rages on. But, through a combination of academics and a commitment to service, the great hope here is that we can argue less about what types of schools are best, and focus more on creating personal experiences that yield winning outcomes for students and families.

What do you say? Are you ready to make feedback matter?

K12 Insight currently works with more than 400 school districts to create schools of first choice for families and students. Email me at sfar00qui@k12insight.com and we can chat about the challenges you are facing.

Suhail Farooqui is president and CEO of K12 Insight. 

Calling all Texas School Leaders: This is an A-F SOS!

Dr. Shelby McIntosh
Dr. Shelby McIntosh, managing director, Southwest, K12 Insight

Across the state of Texas right now, alarms are sounding.

If you were at the TASA Midwinter Conference in Austin last week, you saw firsthand the exasperation on people’s faces.

The state’s new A-F rating system, in which school districts are assigned a letter grade based on a set of predetermined performance metrics, has school leaders and families up in arms.

In an open video to his school community, Dr. Jim Chadwell, superintendent of Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD, said the new system offers a narrow and dangerously unfair view of school success.

Among his reasons:

  • The ratings are based primarily on standardized test scores
  • Similar systems have not worked in other states
  • The ratings do not account for socio-economic variables, such as poverty
  • The ratings do not also include suggestions for practical improvement
  • The ratings create a false sense of shame and failure among teachers and students

“Don’t be fooled,” Chadwell tells his school community in the video. “This new system will not reflect how well a school or district is educating its students.”

Chadwell is far from the system’s only critic. Across the state, school leaders are sending out an SOS on A-F.

‘Greatness demands intentionality’

The system’s opponents say their opposition is not about making excuses for schools; it’s about demanding better from local accountability planning. The purpose of every school-based evaluation should be to form an accurate picture of performance, and to outline a pathway for continuous improvement.

Because A-F is broad and largely inaccurate in its representation of schools, it stands to have a deep negative impact on those in the trenches, including teachers and students who are making progress. This denigration of academic self-worth harbors significant potential emotional and financial costs for schools.

Anticipating this, some forward-thinking school leaders have sought to write their own narrative based on community feedback. In Denton ISD, Superintendent Dr. Jamie Wilson and his team worked with K12 Insight to create the What We Value initiative, a massive community engagement effort that asks community members, including teachers and parents, to share what school success means to them. (Check it out.)

Wilson says the goal is to be intentional in their work, making decisions based on feedback from the people who “they are truly accountable to,” not a letter grade handed down by the state.

Veteran school researcher Dr. Shelby McIntosh, managing director, Southwest, K12 Insight, says there is a checklist of more than 200 items that Texas school districts must consider when creating more intentional community engagement, from strategic planning and survey writing to promotion to analyzing community feedback.

Don’t throw up your hands in the face of A-F. There is a proven process out there that works.

Learn more:

If you work in Texas schools, the A-F debate isn’t going away anytime soon. To learn more about the work that Denton and other districts are doing, reach out to Dr. McIntosh at smcintosh@k12insight.com, or call her: 703-483-5979.

Making state grades matter: 3 keys to stronger local accountability planning

By Dr. Shelby McIntosh

When the Texas Education Agency released its preliminary A-F ratings for schools recently, a lot of educators–and parents and students, for that matter–were up in arms. And rightly so.

Dr. Shelby McIntosh
Dr. Shelby McIntosh

Across the state, critics of the preliminary system said the ratings discounted the quality teaching and learning that takes place every day in Texas schools. No school is perfect. Improvement is something educators, like students, aspire to daily. But it stings nevertheless when the good work you do feels like it isn’t counted.

The solution lies with a well-thought-out local accountability plan–a necessity that many school districts across the state have yet to master. Here’s three steps you can take right now to improve local accountability planning and community engagement in your district. If you want to talk more about how to do this, my contact information is below. I’m happy to walk you through it.

#1 Amplify the community’s voice

Give your community an opportunity to say for themselves how schools should be judged. Find out what’s truly important to parents and teachers and students. My bet: test scores rank pretty low on that list. Based on the feedback you receive from your community, and provided you’re in a position to really listen, you might find that qualities such as engagement and overall school climate are more important.

#2 Collect only the information you need

When you first start thinking about local accountability, the inclination will be to ask your community for feedback on every aspect of your school system. Resist the urge to throw the kitchen sink into your next district survey. Use up-front feedback to identify the areas that are important to the people who matter most. Then drill down where they tell you it counts. You can ask that other stuff later.

#3 Tell your story for real

Don’t let state legislators and others write your narrative for you. You know what an “A-plus” education looks like for your students and families. Make sure the people writing the rules and doling out the grades know it too. Present the data in the context of a compelling story–and turn information into action for your schools.

These are just a few of the many ways that your school district can leverage the power of local accountability planning to highlight its success, and improve its standing with the state. 

About the author

Dr. Shelby McIntosh is a former educator and school researcher living in Texas. She is currently Managing Director, Southwest, for K12 Insight. Reach her at smcintosh@k12insight.com.

On Unity Day, a new guide to fight bullying

As a child growing up with cerebral palsy, I remember what it was like to be bullied. Classmates pointed and stared at my awkward gate. Children and parents, whether out of fear or misunderstanding, said deeply hurtful things to me. It’s hard—being different.

I persevered for one reason: because of my friends—a core support system of classmates, coaches and teachers who were empathetic to the challenges I faced, who got to know me for me, and not for the surface physical differences between us.

October is National Bullying Awareness Month—and that’s good. Because we, as educators and community leaders, are in desperate need of some introspection on the topic. Across the country, students are struggling to overcome the sting and hurt of mental and physical abuse.

Our schools are supposed to be sanctuaries, safe havens where children are empowered to learn and grow and achieve uncommon success in spite of personal struggle. But when statistics tell us that nearly one in four children has been bullied in school or that 64 percent of schoolchildren who are bullied do not report the incident to a parent or educator out of fear, we know our schools are in need of a serious course correction.

Time to make change

That work starts with teaching students and parents and teachers to be kind to one another. As Rob Ellis, founder and chief executive of the national advocacy group Stomp Out Bullying poignantly reminds us, “If children are not taught empathy, then bullying will continue to be pervasive in our schools.”

To help in the fight against bullying, we recently released The School Leader’s Definitive Guide to Bullying Prevention.

In this brief guide, you’ll learn:

  • How school districts in states such as New York and South Carolina are amplifying student voice and feedback to beat back bullying in their local communities.
  • Signs to watch for when students feel threatened or are at risk of being bullied.
  • Practical solutions to help you systematically eradicate the plague of physical and verbal abuse in your schools.

It’s no coincidence that we chose to release the guide on Unity Day 2016. On this day, schools across the country stand together (in orange) to conquer bullying with kindness and inclusion. We hope this guide helps in that fight.

Let’s band to together to stop bullying this day—and every day. Are you with me?

Get The School Leader’s Definitive Guide to Bullying Prevention.

Instilling the skill, will, and thrill of learning in students

NOTE: You can also find this article on our new and improved blog, TrustED. You’ll get the same great content and more in an all-new, easy-to-navigate format. TrustED: News and solutions school leaders can actually use.

We all learn differently. Okay, so you already knew that.

Some of us are visual learners. Others learn better by reading or listening.

Over the past several years, educators have sought to identify their students’ singular learning styles, and then train them how to use their specific styles to their advantage.

While this approach is well intentioned, it’s also a mistake, says education expert, speaker, and author Peter DeWitt.

In a recent post on his Education Week blog “Finding Common Ground,” DeWitt argues that labelling students with one particular learning style unnecessarily discourages them from pursuing others, which in turn boxes them into one particular way of learning.

Instead, DeWitt posits, educators should focus on teaching students different learning strategies to make them more adaptable, and encourage them to grow in how they learn.

That, of course, will require teachers who understand effective learning strategies and a support system that encourages students to take a chance on new approaches.

Style vs. strategy

Labelling a student based on a learning style automatically places them in a box, says DeWitt.

As he writes in his post:

It’s not that we don’t have preferred methods of learning, but too often our students are boxed in by their learning styles as if they didn’t have more than one. … It became a big issue because students, and their parents and teachers, began to believe that students only had one way of preferred learning which prevented them from strengthening other styles of learning.

Instead of focusing solely on how a student learns and working from there, DeWitt says we should provide students with tools that encourage them to learn in different ways.

He identifies four types of strategies, based on the work of education experts John Hattie and Gregory Donoghue:

  • Cognitive: Strategies to deepen understanding of a subject. Think: Making students elaborate on what they’ve learned.
  • Metacognitive: Strategies to help students understand how they learn and what they need to do to be effective. Think: Helping students plan ahead.
  • Motivational: Strategies that motivate students to learn. Think: Instilling in students the confidence that they can accomplish a task.
  • Management: Strategies to make sure students work efficiently. Think: Finding the right resources for learning.

Of course, within each category, there are hundreds of ways to help students learn — and, students will have varying success using each one.

At their core, learning strategies instill in students what Hattie and Donoghue label the “skill, will, and thrill” of learning. That means that, before a new lesson, students have the skills they need, the proper mindset to make sure learning happens, and the motivation to deepen their understanding.

A community effort

New learning strategies don’t get adopted overnight.

But, if you do want to make a meaningful change in your students’ learning, consider focusing on strategies rather than style.

What does that mean for your district?

First, it means making sure your teachers are well-versed in the learning strategies that will help their students succeed. Do you cover the newest learning strategies in your professional development sessions?

Next, it means equipping parents to support the learning strategies at home. That means you need to better engage with parents about your new approach.

Most importantly, students need to understand that implementing new strategies will take time, and they might get frustrated.

Before you introduce anything new, make sure parents and students know why the changes are being made—and that they see the potential benefits.

Have you recently implemented new learning strategies in your classroom? How’d it go? Tell us in the comments.

Looking to introduce new learning approaches in your school? Make sure your teachers have the support they need.

Would you hire IBM’s Watson as a teacher’s aide?

NOTE: You can also find this article on our new and improved blog, TrustED. You’ll get the same great content and more in an all-new, easy-to-navigate format. TrustED: News and solutions school leaders can actually use.

Does being a “Jeopardy!” champion make you an education expert? Not necessarily.

But, in the case of Watson, the IBM computer platform that famously knocked-off trivia phenom Ken Jennings from his record-breaking quiz show pedestal, the notoriety doesn’t hurt.

According to a recent New York Times report, Watson’s next role could be as a virtual assistant to America’s school teachers.

Over the past two years, the IBM Foundation has worked with the American Federation of Teachers to build Teacher Advisor, a program that uses Watson’s artificial intelligence to answer teacher questions and help them develop personalized lesson plans.

The IBM Foundation plans to release a version of the program for third-grade math teachers by the end of this year.

Proponents say the program marks a big step toward strengthening the relationship between technology and teachers, some of who are still reluctant to embrace new innovations in the classroom.

As the relationship between technology and teaching evolves over time, school district leaders must strike a balance between the pressure for change and the due diligence needed to ensure that every investment has a positive desired impact on student learning.

Teaching coach of the future?
The hope is that IBM’s Teacher Advisor and other fringe AI innovations will help teachers navigate the vast amounts of available education information for different grade-levels and subject areas and help them craft customized lesson plans that fit students’ needs.

As IBM Foundation President Stanley S. Litow told the New York Times:

The idea was to build a personal adviser, so a teacher would be able to find the best lesson and then customize the lesson based upon their classroom needs. By loading a massive amount of content, of teaching strategies, lesson plans, you’d actually make Watson the teacher coach.

In some cases, educators and administrators say the new technology could aid teachers in complying with their state’s Common Core standards.

Remember, before the Common Core became a pariah to…pretty much everyone, it was, at its core, a set of standards for the lessons that students need to learn at the end of every grade level. Watson aims to not only help teachers understand what skills they’re required to teach, but also what prerequisite lessons students will need to foster those skills.

Teachers who’ve piloted the program tout its time-saving potential and its ability to constantly adapt, the New York Times reports.

As more teachers use the platform, the Teacher Advisor algorithm will adapt to better answer teachers’ questions and to provide more customized content. In other words, Watson learns.

Make an informed decision
It’s an exciting time for education technology. New initiatives like Teacher Advisor give us an eager glimpse into the future.

But no matter how exciting the possibilities, it’s important to step back and ask that all-important question: In the end, will Teacher Advisor and other solutions like it help students learn?

As you consider the answer to that question, don’t forget to ask students and teachers and parents what they think of the idea.

Do they think it’s worth it? Are parents equipped to support students when it comes to integrating these solutions in schools? What does your staff think about being asked to embrace an entirely new way of working?

Once you have made an informed decision, make sure your students, parents, and staff understand the path you’ve selected and they have the skills and resources to make it work.

That means comprehensive training for each new program as well as ongoing support from content experts.

There’s great technology on the horizon. Watson is one shining example. The question is now: “Are we ready to move forward?”

How do you engage your community before high stakes technology deployments? Tell us in the comments.

Planning a digital transformation in your schools? Here are a few ideas to consider first.