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.

copy-of-suhail_farooqui_expanded
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.

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.

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.

Battling the ‘creepy clown’ frenzy in schools

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.

It sounds like the plot of a B-rated horror movie.

In the run up to Halloween, people dressed as creepy clowns stalk small-town streets and threaten children and families. Schools receive online threats of violence from people purporting to be clowns. And police work to tamp down the frenzy before it envelopes their worried community.

Except, if you’ve been watching the news lately, you know this isn’t a movie. It’s happening.

Since August, when the first clown sightings were reported in South Carolina, there have been more than 100 clown sightings or threats made by people dressed as clowns across the United States. The offbeat social news site Atlas Obscura made an interactive map to track the phenomena in real time. Really.

Recent reports have spread beyond the United States to Canada and Europe.

While the vast majority of clown-related threats have been exposed as hoaxes, people dressed as clowns have been captured on video stalking houses and cemeteries and several arrests have been made for direct threats against citizens and schools, according to NBC News.

As absurd and not funny as this all seems, schools throughout the country are working to keep students protected from threats, both real and perceived.

The creepy clown epidemic makes for a good headline—and some people might think it’s overblown. But the attention presents a great opportunity to evaluate student and campus security. Here’s three things every school leader should do to keep students and teachers safe from outside threats.

Take threats seriously
No matter if it’s a student prank or something worse, assume every threat is real until proven otherwise.

Instances of clown threats against schools have run the gamut from texts to phone calls to social media posts.

Others instances have been more sinister.

Esquire reports that an Ohio woman was grabbed on her porch by a man in a clown costume. The man told the woman that attacks on local schools were imminent. Schools were closed the next day as a precaution.

Schools who’ve dealt with the phenomenon have had to walk a fine line between overblowing what might seem to some like a childish prank and seriously vetting potentially serious credible threats.

At Manassas City Public Schools (MCPS) in Virginia, administrators recently fielded concerns from parents on both sides of the debate. Some felt the district was taking the threats too seriously. Others said they appreciated the district’s diligence in investigating and communicating about the problem.

“We thought it was better to err on the side of too much information,” Almeta Radford, director of public communications at MCPS told TrustED.

The district sent social media, phone, and email messages along with letters updating parents and students on the situation and the district’s actions moving forward.

When you face a potential threat, even if it sounds absurd, don’t rule out the possibility of school delays or closures. Make sure your community understands the threat, your rationale for closing your schools, and your plan for dealing with threats moving forward.

Support students and families
The creepy clown phenomenon plays on a real fear of many children (and adults).

In Manassas City, Radford tells TrustED, “Students were coming in very anxious from middle school and down. There was a lot of anxiety with the students.”

When facing a potential threat in your schools, do you provide counseling and psychological support for students and staff?

Can you identify ways to use thwarted pranks and headline news stories as teachable moments?

Sarasota County School District in Florida recently offered counseling opportunities for all students after a series of prank clown threats against local schools there.

“We were trying to assure parents that there was no real threat from the clown issue that’s been happening,” district communications specialist Scott Ferguson told Your Observer. “We just wanted them to talk to their students and say that what kids do on social media does matter.”

Prevent frenzy through engagement
With so many clown sightings throughout the country, districts are looking for ways to prevent unnecessary panic.

Nothing stirs a frenzy like poor communication.

Before, during, and after these incidents, make sure your community understands your planning and what steps you are taking to improve safety and satisfy public concern.

Let community members vent if they need to and provide feedback on your approach. Stomp out unsubstantiated rumors on social media and elsewhere by keeping community members informed and engaged.

Have you dealt with creepy clown threats in your schools this fall? Share your stories in the comments.

Don’t let pranks turn into controversies. Here’s one way to help encourage authentic two-way communication in your schools.

You can’t buy good school climate

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.

“She’s a smart kid, if only she’d apply herself more…” Sound familiar?

You’ve no doubt uttered this well-worn phrase at some point in your career. Few things are more frustrating than wasted student potential.

But students aren’t the only known squanderers of opportunity; schools have this problem too.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that quality environments (aka schools) are as integral to student success as the desire to learn.

Unfortunately, as educator Jim Bellanca posits for the Solution Tree blog, many schools don’t fully understand the role of climate, particularly the importance of trust and familiarity, in the success paradigm.

Making climate matter
Turns out, the term climate is an apt way of describing the culture and environment of a school.

When students feel unsafe or disconnected from their teachers and other students, their school environment becomes “toxic,” writes Bellanca. Neuroscientists have done some digging into this, he says. What they found was essentially this: Toxicity pollutes students’ learning and negatively affects their success.

On the other hand, schools that promote a positive climate, often through better parent, student, and teacher engagement, display such qualities as creativity, innovative learning, and increased academic success and happiness.

Translation: How students perceive their schools goes a long way toward how they perceive themselves—and, by extension, their potential.

Time for an attitude check?
It might be tempting to think: “I don’t have to worry about school climate. We have new facilities, the latest security technology, and a healthy budget to spend.”

But money can’t buy everything, writes Bellanca.

Facility safety and strategic learning design can contribute to a positive school environment. But no amount of money can counteract negative staff attitudes or limiting teaching strategies or methods.

To prove this point, Bellanca and a team of researchers recently analyzed the results of student surveys from two schools, both of which enroll students of similar economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds.

One school was deemed to have a toxic climate via student feedback; the other was deemed to have a positive, healthy one.

“With all other things equal, the positive, healthy climate allowed teachers and students to wade into the deepest learning waters and enjoy the fruits of instructional practices, which evidence tells us get the most powerful results,” Bellanca says.

The biggest difference between these schools? Simple, says Bellanca: attitude.

After analyzing the curricula and lesson plans of school districts with both negative and positive school climates, several patterns emerged.

For example, schools with negative climates over-emphasized memorization and test-taking. Schools with healthy climates emphasized problem-solving and investigation. Schools with negative climates relied primarily on traditional teaching methods, such as lectures. Schools with positive climates tended to promote collaboration and choice.

Make no mistake: Modern learning facilities and new technology can contribute to a positive school climate, assuming those resources are used the right way and with the right intentions. But the attitudes and perceptions of teachers and parents and students matter just as much, if not more.

That’s why it’s so important to ask your community what it thinks about your schools before you start writing checks. Here’s one way to start that conversation.

For more on the link between school climate and student success, don’t miss our webinar Making Feedback Matter: How School Climate Affects School Quality , Oct. 12. Space is limited, so sign up now!