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. 

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.

Don’t let popularity get in the way of good leadership

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 want to be liked—whether or not we want to admit it.

At home, with friends, or in the office, knowing people like us gives us a sense of acceptance and confidence.

For school leaders, it can be natural to seek out popularity.

In a world where most superintendent tenures last only three years, school leaders are looking for any way to shore up staff and community support.

But making decisions for popularity’s sake is no way to lead, says veteran principal Eric Sheninger in a recent blog post.

While it’s harder to attain, respect is much more valuable to school leaders than popularity.

Action vs. words
As Sheninger points out in his article, when he was a young principal it took him a while to understand the difference between popularity and good leadership.

“I saw being popular with my staff as a way to overcompensate for my young age, and, in turn, gain the respect of a veteran staff,” he writes. “Needless to say, all this did during those initial years was help to sustain the status quo.”

But it’s a leader’s job to challenge the status quo—to take input from your community, to identify new paths your schools should take, and to lead your schools toward new goals.

It’s a matter of leading by doing, instead of just paying lip service, says Sheninger.

Leadership is about action. It is not a popularity contest. As leaders in our respective positions, it is important to ensure popularity doesn’t get in the way of effectively meeting the needs of all learners. … We must be willing to make tough decisions and take on the resistance wherever it lies, knowing full well that these actions will diminish our popularity.

Leading through engagement
The bottom line: Popularity shouldn’t be the goal of any good school leader.

But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take other people’s opinions into account.

The best school leaders understand the difference between listening to your community just to appease it, and listening to your community to gather helpful, useful information.

Do you ask your community for input before making a major decision? If not, you’re missing an important opportunity.

Whether it’s in public meetings, on social media, or via online forums, the best school leaders invite feedback before taking action.

And once you’ve chosen a path forward on any given issue, it’s up to you to communicate your reasoning to employees, parents, and students.

No decision is perfect. And not everyone will like the choices you make. But when your community feels involved in the decision-making process and understands the reasons behind your decision, they’ll be more likely to respect it—even if they disagree.

And that respect is much more powerful than fleeting popularity will ever be.

How do you prioritize respect over popularity? Tell us in the comments.

Want to invite the community into your decision-making process? Start by gathering feedback.

Why your schools are losing market share

The Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) in Maryland has long been regarded by education experts as a national bellwether district.

Pundits and parents alike have dubbed it one of the best, most competitive public school systems in the nation.

But the district is facing unprecedented growth and increasingly limited public resources, according to a recent article in Bethesda Magazine. In the classroom, educators are also wrestling with a burgeoning achievement gap among students of different backgrounds.

This conundrum is not unique to MCPS. Across the country, large school districts with growing populations are struggling to accommodate more students, while continuing to offer an across-the-board quality educational experience to students and their families.

In cases where the quality has slipped, or where families can’t get the same level of attention and service to which they’ve become accustomed, many have decided to either move to another school district, or to enroll their children elsewhere.

Some educators refer to this phenomenon as “losing market share.” As charter schools and neighboring public schools compete for the same pool of students, the pressure is on to offer an educational experience that stands a cut above the competition.

Large school systems from Cleveland to Austin to Los Angeles have convened committees or invested in marketing to fend off competition from charters and neighboring districts alike. If market share is not already a topic of conversation in your district, it soon will be.

Getting bigger, but better?
As the local population surges, overcrowding is becoming a real problem for MCPS, reports Bethesda.

Nearly half of the school system’s “clusters”—sub-districts revolving around 25 separate high schools—report facilities at 105 percent capacity. Last year, more than 8,500 students in the district were served in portable classrooms.

Compounding matters, the magazine reports that MCPS has not received the state funding it needs to effectively manage its growth.

At the same time, MCPS is facing a widening achievement gap.

Like other school leaders in his shoes, new MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith has a lot on his plate.

How he and his team ultimately deal with issues of overcrowding and racial and socioeconomic disparity will go a long way toward determining whether MCPS remains one of the nation’s “crown jewels”—as one proud county councilmember dubbed the district.

“Howard County (a neighboring public school district) is knocking on our door.” Sharon Watts, a local elementary PTA president told the magazine. “Their schools are getting better and better, and our schools are getting bigger and bigger, and homebuyers are going to see that.”

Prioritize and plan
Every school district faces its own set of challenges. As a school leader, the onus falls on you and your team to find creative solutions to pressing issues, be it growth or competition, or both.

It’s easy to invest in marketing initiatives and other programs intended to make your schools stand out. Many of these programs work, to an extent.

But they don’t get to the root of the problem that schools like MCPS and others often face.

If you want parents and students to develop loyalty and affinity for your schools, you have to rethink and redesign the school experience.

Do students and parents feel valued? When they have concerns or questions about a decision in your schools, do they have a way to engage in a meaningful conversation or talk about what’s bothering them? Do you take the time to invite their feedback and to listen to their opinions? Or do you charge blindly ahead and make decisions in a vacuum?

As enrollments increase, don’t forget about the importance of good customer service. What steps do you take to embody a service culture in your district?

Looking for a better way to engage community members and build loyalty amid increased competition? Here’s one solution that might make sense for your district.

Is your classroom the next Uber?

If I say the word startup, what image springs to mind?

You probably picture an open-air office full of twentysomething hipsters in sandals huddled around a whiteboard or laptops.

It’s easy to stereotype the startup “look.” But startup culture is about more than funky offices and millennial-era perks.

Startups pride themselves on risk-taking, innovation and adaptation, as well as the ability to respond quickly to customer and market demands.

The mindset has captivated the business world with the meteoric rise of companies such as Uber and Airbnb.

But business leaders aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit from the startup vibe. Schools would do well to adopt some of these traits as well, says startup and education advocate Jeff Hemmett.

In a talk at last year’s TedxWestVancouverED, Hemmett outlined why a strong startup culture could benefit schools, and help educators and students succeed in a world of perpetual change.

‘Classroom, Inc.’
Comparing America’s traditional education system to a tiny startup might seem impractical. But if you start to view each classroom as its own entity, you begin to realize that our schools are more nimble than we like to think.

Hemmett dubs this way of thinking, “Classroom, Inc.”

Instead of producing the next great social network, streaming platform, or online retailer, America’s classrooms create an even more valuable commodity: opportunity.

“Now, the kids in your classroom, they might not know what they want to be when they grow up,” Hemmett told a group of educators during his talk. “It could be a rockstar, could be a CEO, could be an activist. It doesn’t matter. Their opportunity to become any or all of these things comes from you.”

In the face of rapid, unpredictable change, it’s up to schools to provide new opportunities and avenues for students.

Staying lean and responsive
Large, blue-chip corporations are averse to change, says Hemmett. That’s because they’re not built to react quickly to disruption.

Startups, on the other hand, are lean and responsive. They challenge each employee to cultivate that elusive entrepreneurial spirit and they give people the freedom to learn and build on their own, or in collaboration with others.

This is why startups attract the best talent in the world, Hemmett says.

Attracting great talent is a challenge education faces every day, along with developing leadership, creating a unified vision, and navigating a complex maze of human emotion and interaction.

Talk the talk
Speed and adaptability are great, but they don’t mean a thing absent the ability to forecast and react to reliable data. That’s why startups put so much effort into gathering feedback from customers and users.

Take Uber for example. A large part of the company’s business model is based on one simple, but effective premise: riders provide feedback on drivers, drivers provide feedback on riders. The company uses this feedback to hone and perfect its services, and to keep customers coming back.

In an era of increased competition, where students and families can choose to ditch traditional public schools for alternative options on a whim, the power of feedback and the importance of listening to parents’ and students’ concerns is more important than ever.

For more on the startup culture in schools, check out Hemmett’s full Tedx talk below:

What ways might your school or district consider adopting a startup culture to stay ahead of changes in learning culture? Tell us in the comments.

Want to encourage greater collaboration in your schools? Here’s one way to get students and parents engaged in a conversation about real change.

Silos are inevitable. Here’s how to make them work.

Organizations large and small struggle to keep their various departments connected.

Schools are no exception.

It’s easy to get tunnel vision when a new project or crisis arises.

Unlike large corporations, where specialized departments can often get by working in isolation, school leaders must work together.

This is especially true when it comes to district technology adoption, says education strategist and consultant Eric Patnoudes.

In a recent blog post for EdTech Focus on K-12, Patnoudes outlines several strategies to align the goals of district administrators, the school IT leaders, and faculty members. Though his strategies are meant to address technical communication challenges, they can be applied to silos in other areas too.

The silos go up
The simple act of departmental miscommunication can have devastating effects, says Patnoudes.

“These silos can lead to misaligned priorities, lack of information flow, reduced morale and disjointed decision making,” he writes. Adding, “it may ultimately contribute to the demise of a productive district culture.”

When new education technology is “forced” on teachers without their input, that’s a silo problem. When IT specialists are surprised by new technology requirements, that’s a silo problem. And, when both faculty and technology leaders are blindsided by top-down mandates from the central office, that’s…well, you get the picture.

Whether it’s intentional or simply an oversight, failure to include key people and voices in important decisions can wreak havoc on a school district’s operational efficiency.

So what’s the solution?

The silos don’t have to come down
While most organizations work to “break down the silos,” that’s not always feasible. Nor is it necessarily the best approach.

Believe it or not, Patnoudes says, silos do, in fact, serve a purpose.

“Silos are quite important in organizations for creating a structure of accountability, the delegation of responsibility, and allowing for expertise in certain fields,” he explains.

Teachers are teachers for a reason. IT specialists are just that: specialists. And school leaders have put in years of hard work to learn how to engage students.

The challenge for schools is to allow specialized teams to do the work they’re good at, while still acknowledging and including input from others.

That only works when districts deploy a unified strategy, and clear communication across teams.

Top-down dictates rarely foster true collaboration, says Patnoudes.

“The most successful districts I’ve worked with around the U.S. started by establishing a unified vision and made working across departmental silos a top priority,” he writes. “They made certain everyone has a seat at the table and understands each other’s perspectives.”

To be successful, school leaders need to establish clear systems for gathering feedback from staff and actively foster communication between departments. This can be accomplished through regular meetings, online suggestion boxes, or other means, so long as team members feel that they’ve contributed to the conversation in a meaningful way.

Same goes for the community. Parents and other stakeholders have their own perspectives. But they, too, can feel unnecessarily walled off from the school decision-making processes.

What steps does your school or district take to ensure that staff and parents and others feel included in important school-based decisions? Tell us in the comments.

Do you struggle to overcome silos in your school community? Here’s one way to engage different groups in meaningful conversations.