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.

15 years on, teaching about 9/11 still isn’t easy

It’s exactly 15 years later—and the memory is still etched in my brain.

I was standing by my high school locker waiting for the bell to ring for my fourth-period sophomore English class. A classmate walked by and mentioned that a plane had crashed into a building in New York.

I walked into my class. There, I saw my teacher, and dozens of my classmates, huddled and standing around the television.

Plumes of black smoke rose from the twin towers. It didn’t take long for us to understand that we were witness to something terrible—even if we didn’t know exactly what. We watched for another 30 minutes, until our principal ordered our teacher to turn off the TV.

Most of us have similar “where I was when” stories about September 11, 2001. The tragic events of that day have redefined the modern world, changed history and politics, and ignited still-raging debates over national security and the meaning of freedom. How could we possibly forget that moment when everything changed?

But today’s students don’t have those same recollections.

To most of them, 9/11 is a historical event that happened either before they were born or before they were old enough to remember. For educators, trying to teach 9/11 as history presents challenges, especially considering how fresh the events are in so many of our minds.

That reality has prompted important discussions about how to develop curriculum that both honors the memory of those lost and presents students with historical facts about the cause of the tragedy and its geopolitical aftermath.

Honoring the memory, teaching the history
While many states have written and approved lessons about the 9/11 attacks, most do not mandate them. In many cases, teachers are left to develop curricula around the event on their own—and the approaches vary.

“I don’t think there’s a school system that has said ‘We’re going to focus on this,” New Jersey teacher Colleen Tambuscio told USA Today in a recent article. “I think what has happened in New Jersey—we’ve had moments of silence; we’ve had commemorative acts that were important. But now we should be getting into the educational piece, where we’re doing more with the education. That’s the trajectory.”

Tambuscio developed a 9/11 curriculum for her high school that touches on the political and religious causes and influences that surround the tragedy, such as the history of Islamic extremism, privacy debates, economic effects of the attacks, and more.

At the same time, given their age, many students have not talked about the events of 9/11 at home or in elementary or middle school, according to USA Today. To the contrary, for many adults, the emotions are still too raw and the lessons too difficult to discern.

Starting a community dialogue
Given these challenges, how can your schools identify sensitive ways to both remember and teach 9/11?

Asking your community for advice is a good first step.

The lessons and meanings of 9/11 are different for everyone—who they knew, what they do for a living, where they were. Because of this, everyone has different ideas about how to focus curricula around the event.

For some community members, the idea of teaching 9/11 in a historical context raises emotions—and, to some extent, controversy. That’s why engaging them in the planning process is so important.

Of course, the responsibility rests with you and with your staff to actually teach the history.

As we commemorate the 15th anniversary of 9/11, let’s think about the important conversations we need to have in our schools, how times have changed since, and identify the best ways to remember and to teach the tragic events of that day.

Student empathy is disappearing from schools. Here’s how to get it back.

We talk a lot about how busy educators are. But students are busy too. Really busy. With class, homework, sports, and other activities, there isn’t a whole lot of time left in the day.

Unfortunately, students’ personal relationships with family and friends sometimes suffer as a result of crammed activity calendars.

While social media and other online outlets offer a sense of connection that didn’t exist all that long ago, those kind of interactions often fall short when it comes to one critical social skill: empathy.

In fact, a study from the University of Michigan found that today’s college students are 40 percent less empathetic than previous generations.

So what can be done to ensure today’s students develop a better sense of empathy and understanding for others?

One idea is to focus on social-emotional learning in K12 classrooms. Some states have gone so far as to coordinate standards on how to teach these skills, according to a story in Education Week.

But authors Jessica Alexander and Iben Sandahl offer another idea: set aside dedicated time in school for students to connect with and learn from each other.

The inspiration for this idea may surprise you.

Introducing ‘Class’s Hour’
Alexander and Sandahl were inspired by classroom techniques observed in Denmark while writing a book The Danish Way of Parenting; What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids.

The authors were particularly interested in the concept of “Klassen Time” or “Class’s Hour,” explains this article by Kate Stolzfus in Education Week.

Once a week, teachers put aside time for students to connect with their peers and their teachers.

Asks Alexander: “By dedicating an hour a week to teaching kids to put themselves in someone else’s shoes from the ages of 6 to 16 and helping to find solutions together, what kind of changes could we bring about?”

Each school has its own approach, but the idea is to set aside regular time for students to listen to each other and to help each other work through unresolved problems, both in class and at home.

The hope is that students will gain a better appreciation for the problems of others and be better-equipped to support those in need.

When students are more empathetic, they also tend to do better in school, writes Stoltzfus. She points to research that connects empathy with lower rates of bullying and suspension and higher graduation rates.

Empathy through engagement
At the heart of the Class’s Hour approach is a focus on engagement. Fortunately, you don’t need to dedicate precious class time to make engagement a priority. Here are some steps you can take to integrate principles of engagement without an overhaul of your existing curricula:

  • Empower students to express their thoughts and concerns, either in person or in private, such as in an online forum where students submit complaints.
  • Conduct a survey where students can express their fears and concerns anonymously. Share the data you collect from that survey to help students understand that their anxieties are shared by others.
  • Monitor social media for calls for help.
  • Let students know you’re listening to their concerns by drafting new policies or strategies and letting them know that they aren’t alone.
  • Provide empathy training to teachers and staff during annual professional development workshops and help educators prioritize empathy in their classrooms.

How do you prioritize student empathy in your schools? Tell us in the comments.

Want a better way to listen to and understand students’ concerns? Encourage your students to share their feedback with you in a safe way.

Embracing solutions to fight negativity

In a perfect world, every school leader would make the right choices for students and families. And the only feedback we’d ever receive is praise.

But we don’t live in a perfect world. And, more often than not, the feedback we receive from staff and community members comes in some form other than praise. Not that we don’t receive praise. But, you know what they say about complaints…

Fortunately, negative feedback isn’t always a bad thing.

Oftentimes, it illustrates where we’ve gone wrong, what students, parents, and teachers think we’re overlooking, and how we can improve.

The problem is that not all feedback is constructive.

If you’ve worked in schools for any amount of time, chances are you’ve bumped into a community member whose feedback is consistently negative, and who, for whatever reason, isn’t interested in finding a solution.

When you do hear from stakeholders with this kind of reputation, the default reaction is sometimes to dismiss their feedback, or ignore it entirely.

But that’s not always a good idea, writes former principal and education leader Eric Sheninger. While it’s easy enough to ignore consistently negative feedback, Sheninger says it’s better if you work to turn naysayers into positive contributors.

Of course, getting people to change isn’t always easy. But it can be done, says Sheninger. He offers this approach.

Force solutions
“The secret to dealing with negative people is to make them part of the solution by not allowing them to continually be part of the problem,” writes Sheninger on his blog. “Giving up on these people is not an option.”

In the same way that the squeaky wheel usually gets the grease, the loudest complainers usually get the most attention. Add social media to the mix and the drumbeat of negativity can often drown out meaningful conversations about productive solutions.

To the contrary, when dealing with negative comments from parents or from staff, Sheninger recommends positive reinforcement, stronger professional development and training, more time and resources allocated specifically to resolving issues, and encouraging feedback. Though he acknowledges that attempting to train away negativity rarely works.

Instead, Sheninger offers a simpler solution, inspired by Jon Gordon’s book The No Complaining Rule. The idea: for every potential complaint that hits your inbox, ask the complainer to propose two solutions.

As a principal, Sheninger implemented this idea with his staff: “As leaders we must create the conditions for staff to be honest and open about professional issues,” he writes in a description of his approach. “We must then encourage and sometimes challenge them to share practical solutions to the problem and listen intently.”

Incubate solutions
It’s easy enough to require teachers and staff members to proffer solutions as a matter of policy, it’s harder to encourage this type of exchange among community members, such as parents.

But not impossible.

By setting ground rules online and in public meetings, you can begin to encourage the members of your community to listen to each other and to engage in conversations about solutions, not problems.

If your social media accounts, email inboxes, online forums, or in-person meetings have become veritable dumping grounds for complaints, it’s not too late to transform these forums into solutions incubators.

Have you thought about a solution-only twitter hashtag or live chat, for example? What about a mandatory field on your next school climate or parent or staff engagement survey that asks respondents to provide open-ended answers, including potential solutions to defined problems in your schools?

What steps do you take as a leader to acknowledge staff and community members alike when they contribute to solutions in your schools?

Whatever your approach, it’s important to encourage constructive conversations around viable solutions. Let your community know you’re listening to their thoughts and that you are actively using their ideas to inform your decisions.

Looking for a better way to start a productive, solutions-driven conversation with the members of your school community? Here’s one way to start that conversation.

Is this the end of homework as we know it?

Homework: It’s been the bane of students’ existence since…forever.

As a kid, how many times did you ask to go out and play only to be met with this question from your parents:

“Did you do your homework?”

Homework has long been viewed as a frustrating but necessary part of the school experience.

Now, that thinking may be changing.

Just ask second-grade teacher Brandy Young. When Young sent a note to parents’ of her second-grade students advising them that she would not be assigning homework this school year, the note set the internet abuzz.

Young’s homework policy has shone a light on a long-simmering debate about homework in the nation’s K12 schools.

As a new school year kicks off, it’s a discussion you’ll want to have with parents and students. Here’s why.

The jury’s still out on homework
Young’s short note to parents was written for “Meet-the-Teacher” night in her small Texas school.

“Research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance,” wrote Young to parents. “Rather, I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your child to bed early.”

What research does Young reference in her letter?  She doesn’t specifically say.

Homework used to be viewed as a tool to reinforce concepts taught during the school day. If practice makes perfect, the thinking was that homework made good sense.

But more recent research says after-school practice is best in moderation, if at all.

A recent Washington Post report cites a study from the Center for Public Education. That study found that homework doesn’t necessarily correlate to higher student achievement.

“The central lesson of this body of research is that homework is not a strategy that works for all children,” the report’s authors state. “Because of its possible negative effects of decreasing students’ motivation and interest, thereby indirectly impairing performance, homework should be assigned judiciously and moderately.”

According to the New York Times, leading education advocacy groups such as the National PTA and the National Education Association promote a 10-minute per grade level policy. In other words, first graders shouldn’t receive more than 10 minutes of homework per night. Comparably, high school seniors shouldn’t receive more than two hours of homework per night.

A growing number of parents and teachers agree that there is such a thing as too much homework. A Facebook post of Young’s note to parents garnered more than 73,000 shares in more than two weeks. Most of the comments were in support of her policy.

The debate continues
Young’s note has reignited a debate that’s been brewing in education circles, on blogs, and in discussion forums for years.

When it comes to homework, everyone seems to have an opinion.

As a new school year begins, chances are you’ll have similar discussions with parents and others at your schools.

Don’t pass up the opportunity to engage your community in important conversations. Empower students, parents, and staff to contribute to your decision-making—and draft a homework policy that works for your community.

What steps are you taking to engage parents, students, and teachers about homework in your schools? Tell us in the comments.

Looking for an easy way to collect feedback from your school community? Here’s one solution that can help right away.

Q&A: When it comes to ESSA, don’t wait for change to happen to you

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act doesn’t officially kick in until next year, but educators in Idaho aren’t waiting around for change.

The Idaho State Board of Education recently approved a preliminary accountability system to be used when ESSA takes effect, according to Education Week. The state’s new “dashboard”-style accountability system will track both academic and non-academic indicators of school success, from traditional test scores to student engagement.

While proposed U.S. Department of Education regulations would require states to rank schools based on a set of metrics, such as student performance, Idaho’s system bucks that requirement. State officials hope the federal government will reconsider its ranking requirement after witnessing the success of Idaho’s dashboard.

That’s assuming, of course, that the dashboard succeeds.

In the meantime, Idaho, like other states, is asking school leaders and members of the public to weigh in on its new accountability system. And that’s exactly what school leaders should be doing, says Dr. Steve Knobloch, chief learning officer for K12 Insight.

In a recent webinar, “Everything you need to know about ESSA: How to demystify non-academic indicators,” Knobloch noted how ESSA broadens the scope of school and student performance, and gives more power to states and school districts in determining the accountability systems that work for them. He encouraged local school leaders to begin reaching out to state education departments now, to ensure that they have input into how these accountability systems are developed and adopted.

Toward the end of his session, Knobloch entertained several questions from educators. Many of them focused on how to make their voices—and those of their communities—heard before the new rules and regulations governing ESSA go into effect.

If you’re looking for a few ways to include your school community in conversations about ESSA and accountability this school year, don’t miss this advice.

Q: You talk about not waiting for states and making our voices heard now. But what if states don’t listen? Won’t we be spinning our wheels?

A: My argument here is you’re not guaranteed to be heard, and they may not listen to what you have to say, but if you don’t step up and share what your thoughts are, I can guarantee that the changes you’d like to see may not happen.

I think it’s important to realize that we are our best advocates, and sometimes our worst enemies. And, if we want to be living in this accountability system in which there is this helplessness we can, but I believe that the public right now in the states have an opportunity to share what’s best for students. We need to touch everything as if “it’s students first—what’s best for our kids”—and then it’s more likely that people will listen.

Q: What’s the best way to reach out to states to ensure our voices count?

A: From my vantage point, the more data you have behind your argument, the better. So, if you are soliciting support from your parent community, using the organizations that are in place—whether it’s your PTA, your PTSA, your PTOs, whether it’s advocacy groups through professional associations with your staff—it’s all about making sure that you have numbers behind your argument, along with the research.

I think ESSA really opened the door for us to include some of that foundational research about what influences student achievement. Now, at the state level, we have to ensure that the accountability piece that comes into play is meaningful for your district and your schools.

If they (the public) don’t participate, my fear is that we’re going to be regretting it and we’re going to have a backlash, something similar to NCLB ten years into the actual legislation, rather than taking the ownership now and getting it right.

Q: How can we ensure we’re getting a wide representation of community engagement when asking state officials about ESSA?

If you want to inform your state’s public input sessions, there are two approaches that I would take.

  1. Use the resources we’re going to give you regarding engaging your community in the conversation (see below). Use that information to say “This is what my community has to say about state accountability, and non-academic indicators, and testing, and how to balance this.” And put out your numbers: “We held three engagement sessions or community forums. We conducted a survey. We had focus groups.” Whatever you did to get that information. Then put that in the hands of the state.

    (Note: After his presentation, Dr. Knobloch sent three resources to attendees. Those are found here.)

  2. The other thing I would do is argue at the state level that they need to open up public inputs beyond, “Let’s have a session in a region of the state, face to face.” It’s the 21st century. Online is more likely to aggregate a greater amount of input than face to face. You don’t have enough time to process and travel across a state to get sufficient input. These committees that the states have put up have gargantuan tasks and for them to do this face-to-face, I think is short-sighted. Put that input form into your district newsletters. Let people know that this is going on and let the states then handle the information to inform what the accountability plan is. And if you are advocating for one position on one particular indicator over another indicator, let them know why and let them know what it is and let them tell you what their thoughts are. Bring the public back into public education.

Developing new accountability systems in your schools this year?  Download The School Leader’s Definitive Guide to the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Want to watch Dr. Knobloch’s full presentation? Simply download it here.