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

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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.

Rethinking school anti-bullying campaigns

Did you notice a sea of blue shirts roaming your hallways this morning?

Today is Blue Shirt Day® World Day of Bullying Prevention™, STOMP Out Bullying’s international day for recognizing, addressing, and preventing bullying.

Maybe you organized full-fledged Blue Shirt Day rallies or contests in your schools. Maybe you initiated candid discussions about why bullying occurs in your school.

Whatever your approach, today is a time to reflect on an issue plaguing nearly one in three American school children. It’s also a time to develop solutions.

If you’re looking for ideas, a recent study from researchers at Princeton, Yale, and Rutgers sheds new light on the anatomy of bullying, as a recent Ed Week article outlines.

The main takeaway? Peer pressure helps prevent the phenomenon as much as it causes it.

Identifying the influencers
In a survey of more than 24,000 middle schoolers, researchers found that the most influential students were not necessarily the traditional “popular” kids.

“Adult-identified leaders are often very different from student-identified leaders,” Hana Shepherd, an assistant sociology professor at Rutgers University, told Ed Week. “Adults look at traditionally defined ‘popular’ kids, the ‘good’ kids, while kids who are leaders of smaller groups might not be on the social radar of adults, but often are [influential] too.”

The research also attributed bullying to a culture of retribution and harassment among the majority of students in a school, rather than just isolated instances by stereotypical “bad apples.”

But researchers warn that this reframing of bullying—and the social roles of students—may render traditional anti-bullying tactics ineffective.

Spreading the roots
Researchers used the survey results to map the social networks of the students in each school, identifying students who had influence across several peer groups.

Half of these so-called “seed” students were then invited to discuss the causes of bullying and ways to prevent it.

The Roots program, as the researchers named it, allows influential students to engage one another in an open, honest dialogue—not about bullying specifically, but about ways to reduce general conflict or “drama” in their schools.

Students then worked on their own creative projects to influence their peers. Those projects included creating positive, anti-bullying GIFs and developing reward systems for students who reduced conflict in their classrooms.

“We treated students as politicians, campaigning for a better school,” researcher Elizabeth L. Paluck told Ed Week. “The theory was that their public behaviors and statements could change norms.”

And the effort appears to have worked.

In schools with the Roots program, disciplinary incidents fell by nearly 20 percent. In schools where at least one-fifth of influential students participated in the program, reports of discipline issues decreased by 60 percent.

Re-thinking your approach
The results of the Roots program suggest that traditional anti-bullying programs may be outdated in this time of shifting social norms and communication methods.

If you’re planning a new program to combat harassment, consider digging deeper into your school’s social networks to identify the real student influencers. And make sure you keep student engagement at the heart of everything you do.

Today isn’t only Blue Shirt Day®, it’s also the kickoff to anti-bullying month nationwide. Throughout October, we’ll continue to touch on important bullying issues facing schools.

And keep an eye out for our guide for school leaders on bullying prevention.

Why online learning doesn’t work for the disadvantaged

Since the first dial-up modem blinked to life, the internet has helped shatter information hierarchies the world over.

Schools are no exception.

Free, easy access to online learning in schools has helped educators roll back the have, have-not culture that has for too long plagued America’s poorest classrooms.

But there’s a catch, as a brilliant new article in the Atlantic points out. While access to educational technology has done its part to eradicate long-held inequalities in the classroom, the advantages of online learning do not always extend beyond the school building to homes, where they can ostensibly do the most good.

Perhaps even more frustrating, it isn’t a lack of access that’s often the problem.

Instead, researchers point to a lack of “digital readiness” among disadvantaged families as the main roadblock to widespread student adoption of online learning inside and outside of school.

As online resources become a more familiar ingredient of classroom and take-home work, educators must do their part to ensure students and families have both the technology and the digital know-how needed to excel.

Are they ready? Get them ready.
“The data show that there are real barriers to drawing people to use digital resources for learning,” John Horrigan of the Pew Research Center told the Atlantic.

Horrigan is the lead author of the Pew study that first introduced the concept “digital readiness.”

The study found that more than half of Americans with internet access still aren’t equipped to use the internet for learning. Not surprisingly, the study found that the unready majority consisted primarily of disadvantaged populations, including minorities, women, and low-income households.

When it came to online learning, these groups often lacked key digital skills and confidence in their ability to find accurate, trustworthy information online.

Parents are key
We often think of K12 students as being digitally savvy.

But it’s the digital readiness of parents that often dictates how prepared students are for online learning.

Betsy DiSalvo, a researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology, took a look at low-income families and their interactions with online learning.

DiSalvo found that the challenge of providing for their families precluded a lot of parents from getting more actively involved in their child’s education.

When parents were actively engaged in their child’s education, many simply were not equipped to support or encourage online learning from home.

“Their first priority is getting their kids to do well in school,” DiSalvo told the Atlantic. “They’re so focused on that that they aren’t necessarily focused on looking at what’s fun engagement, or what’s going to spark their interest.”

Supporting parents
To encourage more productive digital learning, our schools have to give parents the skills and confidence to support that learning.

How’s that going to happen?

The Atlantic suggests that makers of online resources and policymakers start by ramping up outreach to low-income families.

What steps does your school or district take to include parents from disadvantaged or low-income households in critical discussions about online learning? Tell us in the comments.

Looking for feedback ahead of your next online learning pilot or programs? Here are three ways to start a conversation about the importance of digital transformation in your schools.

How poor schools use community engagement to close the achievement gap

Think your school or district is up against it?

Take 30 seconds to read this recent Education Week article about Calcedeaver Elementary in Mount Vernon, Ala. (population: 2,000).

Nearly 90 percent of the school’s students live in poverty, are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and are Native American, an ethnic group that historically lags other ethnic groups when it comes to student performance.

Given these and other indicators, you might assume that the school is a low performer.

You’d be wrong—dead wrong, in fact. According to Education Week, nearly 90 percent of Calcedeaver students achieve “proficient” or “advanced” scores on state reading and math tests. The school was named a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.

High achieving Calcedeaver graduates have matriculated to the local high school, where they continue to flourish. In the past 15 years, the local high school graduation rate jumped from 50 percent to 91 percent, reports Education Week.

School leaders have traced the success of this rare high-poverty, high-performance outlier to a single defining factor: a tight-knit, productive school-community relationship.

Rather than using its challenges as an excuse, Calcedeaver leverages its unique culture to encourage community participation and student success.

Educators are quick to point out there is no silver-bullet blueprint for success in high-poverty, high-performing schools. But there are a few strategies worth considering. Here’s a look at four that worked in Calcedeaver, via Education Week.

Embrace uniqueness
Calcedeaver celebrates its predominant Native American heritage.

In 2001, the school hired Nicole Williams, a former student, to teach Native American culture, language, dance, and history.

Williams has since become an example and mentor to many of the school’s students.

Williams graduated from Calcedeaver at a time when many of her classmates did not. So she understands the unique path that students in the community must take to achieve success.

For more on Williams and her mentorship, check out this video, courtesy of Education Week:

Involve your community
Whether you hail from a small town, such as Mount Vernon, or a large inner-city neighborhood, the link between community support and student and school success is rooted in common understanding.

Calcedeaver’s ability to embrace its traditional culture and heritage fueled a strong bond between the community and the school.

“This school is the heartbeat of this community,” Williams tells Education Week. “Everything else are the veins and the capillaries and all that. This is the main organ that supports this community, and they support us. It’s a perfect union.”

Principal Laura Hittson protects that union by inviting feedback from members of the school community on key decisions, and giving parents and others a say in the school’s future.

Leverage strategic partnerships
For a small, low-income school like Calcedeaver, going it alone wasn’t going to cut it.

The school’s leaders consistently look to government and business partners to support and underwrite new learning and teaching strategies.

Calcedeaver’s road to excellence kicked off in 2001 when the school joined the federal Reading First program and the Alabama Reading Initiative. Together, these programs—one federal, one state-based—infused much-needed resources and support.

Since then, Calcadeaver has worked with companies and local civic organizations to create STEM-based learning programs and other resource-intensive initiatives, finding ways to save on both time and money.

Establish common goals
At Calcedeaver, leaders and staff approach every new initiative with a student-first mindset, reports Education Week.

Every decision school leaders make has a clear purpose: to encourage student achievement and enrichment.

It’s with this understanding that the school often seeks feedback and advice from its community.

These are, of course, just a few ideas. How does your school or district engage its community to overcome funding or performance issues? Tell us in the comments.

Looking to unify your community around a common set of academic goals? Here’s one way to start that conversation.

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.

We’re still chasing the broadband dream

In 2014, the Federal Communications Commission expanded the federal E-rate program to help schools provide students with access to high-speed internet.

One of the main goals as part of that expansion was to help states get broadband internet to rural schools and those that need it most.

Depending on who you talk to, those efforts are starting to pay off. Education Week reports that Wyoming, one of the most rural states in the nation, is just the second state to achieve 100-percent high-speed connectivity across all its schools.

A glass is half-full person might say, “Well, if Wyoming did it…”

On the other hand, it’s a little disheartening that just two states have achieved total broadband access.

Indeed there is plenty of work still to do, especially if you believe a new report released this month by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA).

The report, The Broadband Imperative II: Equitable Access for Learning, is a  sequel of sorts to two previous reports—one from earlier this year and another from 2012. It rightly acknowledges the strides that have been made to close the broadband gap in schools, while calling for expansion of high-speed internet both inside and outside of school.

In the report, SETDA makes four recommendations:

Increase infrastructure to support Student-Centered Learning
The report makes specific recommendations, including for service provider speeds and network sizes. But the most important piece might be SETDA’s call for schools to look ahead.

“SETDA discourages schools and districts from developing broadband expansion plans simply based on current usage,” according to the report. “Usage data may be skewed to limited digital learning experiences for students or teachers and/or minimal usage of advanced tools and resources for school administration.”

In other words, schools should think about the future of education technology and plan accordingly. Any plan to develop or to expand broadband access should first consider what’s best for students and the different ways they learn.

Design infrastructure to meet capacity targets
In many cases, schools need to rethink why and how their networks are being used in the first place.

There was a time several years ago when broadband networks were largely reserved for processing heavy backend administrative functions, such as grading or attendance systems. These days, the lion’s share of broadband demand comes from the classroom and in other places built to support student learning.

“As districts and schools move to seamless digital learning environments,” the report’s authors write, “the importance of designing high-capacity and widely available networks, including the utilization of wireless networks is essential.”

Leverage state resources to increase broadband access
According to SETDA, at least a third of U.S. states don’t provide direct funding to help schools improve broadband access.

Perhaps not surprisingly, SETDA recommends that states exhaust all available resources, be it direct funding, state-level and federal programs, or other means to support district-level broadband expansion.

Ensure equity of access for all students outside of school
Even when schools do everything they can to ensure students have access to high-speed internet in the classroom, far too many students still encounter substandard access at home.

This “homework gap” will only continue to widen as schools migrate to digital curricula and devices, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel told the attendees at the International Society for Technology in Education conference last year.

While schools can’t provide internet directly to homes, forward thinking educators can help parents identify creative solutions to ensure students and families get the broadband access they need.

SETDA suggests three ways for states, districts, and schools to promote the extension of broadband access outside school:

  • Provide outreach and education for families—particularly low-income families—on the importance of high-speed internet access.
  • Work with community organizations to provide more robust connections.
  • Make sure that community members and families know and understand every option for acquiring affordable high-speed access at home.

What steps does your school or district take to ensure its students have equitable access to high-speed internet? Tell us in the comments.

Are you planning a digital expansion in your district this year? It’s a good idea to see where your community stands on the idea. Here’s a few ways to start that conversation right now.