How can school districts create a culture of excellence for all students?
For our students to develop 21st century skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and communication germane to a global and competitive workforce, education must be our top priority. While attending the 2013 National Conference on Education in Los Angeles, superintendents across the nation were welcomed with talented speakers to network and learn best practices critical to the sustainability and vitality of the education profession. Despite tough economic times, the critical questions to be asked are: How can school districts create a culture of excellence for all students, staff and families? How can they transform schools for improvement?
Deborah S. Delisle, Assistant Secretary for the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education for the U. S. Department of Education, was one of the dynamic speakers for the conference. She gave personal and professional recommendations for school districts to create a culture of excellence for all students, staff and families in order to transform schools for improvement. Delisle told the superintendents that her father was her greatest teacher who instilled the value in her as a child that “You can be anything you want, if you care enough.” Consequently, she has held on to this belief and made it an integral part of her personal and professional life.
Delisle’s message was passionate and compelling for superintendents to consider transforming their schools through telling students what we value, predict what students need for their future, afford students hope and a reason to report to school daily since many of them come to school bored and tired due to challenging and stressful situations at home. Delisle said students don’t care about whether we are opponents or proponents of the Democratic or Republican party. We must create a positive climate that gives students hope for the next day.
Just as we create a culture of excellence for students, Delisle said we must do the same for staff and families. She discussed the need for school districts to look at their support structure or ways to show appreciation for staff that change teaching and administrative positions throughout their careers, and think critically about how they engage or welcome parents to the school. She cautioned educators to be aware of intention and the conflicting messages we may send. She provided the example of a school that indicated it has an open door policy although there was a sign at the school that said family hours are from 3-4 p.m., which could cause a major issue for working families.
Delisle believes “the primary aim of education is not to enable students to do well in school, but to help them do well in the lives they lead outside of school now and in the future.” She explained that school districts must identify ways to personalize education in an effort to get to know their students. She said that surveys can be a way to assess what families and students think about their schools but the data collected has to be acted upon. She gave an example of how one school accepted the feedback of students and, subsequently, their scores improved. She said it is amazing what happens when teachers sincerely invest their hearts in children. Improvement can happen consistently in schools. However, Delisle stated that “unless we unlearn some of our traditional practices, we will never get beyond an improvement mindset.”
Additionally, Delisle discussed the need for school districts to employ a strategic transformation mindset to “prepare children of today for a world that has yet to be created, for jobs yet to be invented and for technologies yet undreamed.” She explained a scenario in her role as associate superintendent in Cleveland where an Advanced Placement program was costing the district one million dollars each year although the program was counter productive due to an insufficient number of students in the program. She advised superintendents in similar situations to strategically rethink the value of the program rather than maintain the status quo. In our jobs, “sometimes our behaviors become rote and predictable which does not lead to transformative and supportive systems,” noted Delisle.
Delisle said that when you enter a school, you are able to determine immediately the climate and make a decision to enroll or not enroll your child in the school. The culture tells everything. To improve the culture, “We should focus on what the teachers should be doing instead of what the students are doing.” In other words, what type of lesson did the teachers develop to foster learning? Similarly, we should focus on how the teachers are responding to the principals. Are principals just keeping track of the number of classroom walkthroughs or providing relevant feedback to the lessons with the teachers? Performance reviews should be about the practices that prepare students for 21st century skills. Delisle said, superintendents have to model the kinds of meetings, observations and expectations they want their principals to have with the teachers and other staff. They must establish the non-negotiables. Everyone in the building including the secretary must be held accountable to change the culture and, subsequently, improve the learning environment. The way the secretary answers the telephone even sends a message about the culture.
Culture is essential to the success of schools according to Delisle. She said that when looking at the culture of the school, we should ask questions such as, “What do we see? What do we hear staff members saying? What does the physical environment look like? How are problems resolved? What are our stakeholders saying about us? What is the energy level? Is the environment conducive to working collaboratively?”
Delisle ended her presentation by asking administrators the following questons: “Are you preparing our students for their future? To what extent do your students have opportunities to engage in interdisciplinary studies, blended learning, guided inquiry, projects that cross times zones, career exploration, mentorships and internships.” She noted that “higher performing districts tend to be led by staff that communicate a strong belief in the capacity of principals and teachers to improve the quality of teaching and learning and in the district’s capacity to develop the organizational conditions needed for that to happen.”
While school districts are faced with a plethora of challenges, Delisle emphasized that networking is critical. “Every state is different, kids are different” but we all have the same goal to educate our students. The National Conference on Education affords superintendents and other school leaders to talk to each other about educational issues and solutions for creating viable school cultures conducive to learning. According to Delisle, “Our students are depending upon us to create a culture of excellence for all of them. Tomorrow is too late.”
Dr. Ronald Holmes is the author of three books, “Education Questions to be Answered,” “Current Issues and Answers in Education” and “How to Eradicate Hazing.” He is publisher of “The Holmes Education Post,” an education focused Internet newspaper. Holmes is the national superintendent of education for the National Save the Family Now Movement, Inc., a former teacher, school administrator and district superintendent. He can be reached at [email protected]