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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Style vs. strategy

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

As he writes in his post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

A community effort

New learning strategies don’t get adopted overnight.

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

What does that mean for your district?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.