Sunday, February 14, 2016

Future-Focused Leadership

In my last guest post, I outlined the ways in which the Every Student Succeeds Act, recently signed into law, gives us a unique chance to create the indicators of achievement that will mean and matter to us—indicators catered to the unique DNA of our states, districts, and schools. In my post, I called members of school boards and instructional and school leaders to action: we have the chance—the obligation—to voice our own frustrations and actually have them heard, respected, and applied to the process of overhauling the system and focusing on what matters most: the students. 

What does it mean to overhaul the system in this way? The work of Superintendent Guy Sconzo of Humble Independent School District in Humble, Texas, is a powerful example of creating a future-focused system. Over the past 15 years, Dr. Sconzo has developed and implemented strategies that fulfill the district’s mission of teaching well-rounded students—not to the standardized test. These are his six guiding principles:

  1. Commit to the Whole Child: Understand why your priority is the whole child. Communicate this commitment calmly, clearly, and continually to all of your audiences.
  2. Create a Culture of Trust: Start with a conversation. Invite ideas and insights from the school board, district, and community members. Remind your teachers that you believe they are far more capable than teaching to a test. Encourage them to find creative ways to teach students to be successful in life. Craft a plan, test out multiple ideas, and be willing to throw out ideas that don’t work and adapt those that do. Overhaul your evaluation system and push it to apply new indicators that measure the development of the whole child.
  3. Win Over the Skeptics by Personalizing the Conversation: A test score says very little about a person’s talents and capabilities. Where generalized conversations fail, personal ones can often prevail. Ask the doubters, “Can your own children, nieces and nephews, or other children you know be accurately summed up in a standardized test score?”
  4. Be Flexible and Embrace Trial and Error in the Effort to Find New Metrics: How do we measure a student’s interpersonal skills? How do we measure their ability to think creatively? Many fundamental skills are difficult but essential to quantify. But we must also accept—and communicate—that there are characteristics of a person that simply cannot be quantified—and honest messaging on this topic is critical. Where you cannot quantify output, find ways to quantify input. The goal is exposure to creative thinking and its process and fostering a well-rounded child who can connect the dots from one discipline to another. Creative confidence and experience is necessary for success in whatever career or interest a student pursues, whether it be science, business, a technical vocation, or another field.  
  5. Stay Calm During Testing Time: Pressure is contagious. Districts and communities can generate a rush of anxiety at testing time. Model a calm demeanor and resolve in keeping testing in perspective. Remind teachers and students that you are evaluating them on much more than a test. Reiterate your belief that everyone—teachers and students alike—is much more dynamic, interesting, intelligent, and capable than what bubbles on a paper might attempt to suggest.
  6. Accept Challenges: Creating a new paradigm of instruction and learning is a massive undertaking. Innovating within the confines of the testing system is one thing; this is entirely different. This is breaking out of a narrow system and building something new. Dramatic change elicits fear in many. Acknowledge and respect people’s fears, and continually communicate why such change is needed. In order for this effort to gain traction—in your classrooms, schools, districts, states and throughout the country—laser focus, deliberate effort, and enormous patience must precede it.
(For more on Humble ISD’s approach to 21st-century teaching and learning, read Success Beyond the Test: Preparing Students for Success in Real Life.) 

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