As promised, I’m going to start trying to highlight some “Bold School” practices that I hope might serve as models for others to follow. (Note: I’m still looking for examples of those practices, so let me know if you’re being “bold” at your school…would love to connect.)
To that end, I want to offer up some of the work that Lisa Brady is doing as superintendent in Dobbs Ferry, NY around being “provocative,” specifically provoking conversations around real change in her local community. Some backstory just for context: Lisa was principal at Hunterdon Central during the last few years of my tenure there, and she returned as superintendent after I left in 2006. There, she led initiatives to move to a technology rich, connected, inquiry-based curriculum that are still evolving. She’s finishing up her first year in Dobbs Ferry, but she’s already made significant progress in changing the conversation around learning there as well. Her school district has about 1,650 kids K-12, is primarily blue collar, and has a fairly typical history of scoring well on the test and sending kids to college. It’s also a high school that features an IB program, and one that hasn’t made too many inroads into technology at all over the years.
One of Lisa’s mantras is that schools have little choice when it comes to thinking differently about education. And she also believes that parents are the key to making that different thinking happen.
“Parents are the piece where we’re not doing enough legwork,” she says. “Marginalizing parents, not letting them be an important voice in the larger conversation is a huge mistake.”
Why? We all know the role parent’s play in budgets, election of school board members, and support for programs and teachers. But here’s the other thing: engaged and invested parents sustain the conversation over time. One of the biggest barriers to long-term change is that leaders rarely stay around long enough to see initiatives through. If parents are sufficiently invested in seeing those initiatives through over time, they will help to make sure that change continues despite a shift in leadership.
So, to that end, Lisa started early on with a program to a) set the context for the conversation with parents, b) be clear about what is most valuable in the learning interaction, and c) articulate that shared new vision to teachers and community in a variety of ways. The centerpiece was to invite all parents to read and discuss Tony Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap, a book she chose because of the way it clearly articulated what schools need to value when it comes to an education.
“When you ask parents what they want their kids to be able to do, none of them ever says ‘pass the test’,” Lisa says. “They start with the types of skills that Wagner talks about, problem solving, agility, initiative. What parent is going to say ‘no’ to that? And that’s the frame that we have to keep coming back to when parents start talking about test scores. We have to keep asking them ‘is that really what’s important to you?’”
About 100 parents signed on to read and discuss the book, and over a month, Lisa held 10 discussions in parents’ homes, six during the day and four in the evening with a dozen parents each. While the meetings were supposed to last an hour, most went closer to three. (For some details of the themes that emerged check out this blog post.) What struck her most about the conversations were not the resistance to the idea of real change but, instead, parents’ concerns that teachers would change their practice.
“We’re all saying the test is not the most important thing, but the state of NY is now saying the test is a big part of a teacher’s evaluation,” she said. “Parents wondered what effect that would have.”
That led to conversations with the teachers as well. “Teachers need to know that you or parents aren’t going to come after them with pick axes if scores go down. I made sure my staff were having conversations about change as well, and that they knew parents supported them, and that I would hold parents to that support once test time rolled around.”
The result has been a commitment on the part of the district to have ongoing conversations around the big picture value of an education in the Dobbs Ferry District, and a commitment to invest heavily in technology in the coming school year, an investment that has the support of the community. While there is still a lot of discussion about curriculum and instruction to come, the groundwork has been set in less than a year for significant changes in the way learning happens.
I plan on going into more detail on the process at Dobbs Ferry in other spaces, but here are some of the “bold” takeaways:
- Parents are the most important constituency to engage in conversations around the shifts we are experiencing. We have to be willing to provoke and engage in those conversations on an ongoing basis.
- We have to trust that creating inquiry based, technology rich, connected spaces for learning will help students accomplish traditional outcomes (such as passing the test) as well. “It’s a bit of a leap of faith,” Lisa says, “but I just keep bringing the conversation back to what do we really want our kids to be able to do? If we believe that our kids should be self-directed learners, and critical thinkers and entrepreneurial learners, then we also have to believe that the test stuff will take care of itself.”
- We have to admit that we don’t have all the answers, but that we need parents to be a part of the solution. “Parents can get comfortable with the idea that we’re figuring this out together.”
- Teachers can feel very empowered when they know parents have their backs.
- We can’t wait for policy or politics to change. We have to be the impetus for change.
So what resonates here? What would you add? What questions do you have? What stops you from thinking it’s possible?