Thursday, February 05, 2009

Administrators share vision to change schools

For a copy of "Creating a New Vision for Public Education in Texas," go to the Texas Association of School Administrators Web site:

By LINDA STEWART BALL | The Associated Press
Jan. 26, 2009

DALLAS — Skip the piecemeal education reform. A group of Texas school superintendents are calling for a complete transformation of public schools to better prepare students for the future in ways that aren't boring.

They've laid out the framework in a 48-page report called Creating a New Vision for Public Education in Texas.

Nearly two years in the making, the document spells out school leaders' thoughts on six key issues, including the use of digital technology, abuse of standardized testing and designing accountability systems that inspire excellence instead of punish perceived shortcomings.

The 35 superintendents from Dallas, Cypress-Fairbanks, Fort Worth, San Antonio and numerous rural and suburban school districts are responsible for educating about a quarter of the state's 4.7 million schoolchildren.

"We came together to say 'Stop this train that's going in the wrong direction,' " said Coppell school Superintendent Jeff Turner.

Keith Sockwell, chief executive officer of Cambridge Strategic Services, an education consulting firm, conceived of the initiative after visiting with frustrated Texas school superintendents.

"When we look at our public schools today, I'd say they're doing a dadgum good job of preparing our kids for the 20th and 19th Century," Sockwell said. "It's almost like we need to blow it up and start over."

The superintendents say part of the problem is that state and federal politicians, business leaders and their policy advisers have set education's current course.

The school administrators want to return control to principals, teachers, parents, school board members and others at the local level — or at least create a better balance.

"It's going to have to be a joint collaborative effort with parents, educators and legislators," said Plano school Superintendent Doug Otto. "None of us can do it alone. Certainly, the business community has to be part of it, too.

"I'm optimistic," Otto added. "People are ready for a change, to see if we can't devise a much better system for our kids."

To do that, he and others said there needs to be a grassroots discussion about what needs to change and how. The report opens the door for such a dialogue.

Much of the research behind it came from national experts who met with the superintendents and challenged their thinking.

"They really stretched us," Dallas superintendent Michael Hinojosa said of the process. "To get 35 superintendents with a bunch of egos to agree on where we ought to go, was really inspiring. I think this is long overdue."

Although completed last summer, the document has been quietly making its way onto some school board agendas and has become the focus of town hall meetings.

"We're asking for comment," said Stephen Waddell, Birdville school district superintendent. "We want people to read it and respond."

Some 3,500 school administrators from across the state_ including about 800 superintendents — are expected to weigh in on the report this week during a three-day Texas Association of School Administrators conference that began Monday in Austin.

"It's a work in progress," said Johnny Veselka, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators. "It's not a document that will reach its full fruition during this legislative session. But it gives us a lens through which we can look at legislative proposals."

Otto said a major overhaul in education — using the report as a roadmap — probably couldn't happen before the 2011 legislative session. However, there's plenty that school districts can start addressing now.

"I think the hardest thing to do is change what goes on in the classroom," Otto said. "School can be a very boring place for a student sitting at a desk all day."

He said students come to traditional school settings with a mastery of iPods, Wii game systems, cell phones and other devices that must be "powered down" in class. The challenge is finding a way to use gaming techniques and other technology to enhance the curriculum and create a more relevant and engaging learning environment, he said, citing one of the report's guiding principles.

Otto said "parents and educators are tired of high-stakes testing that limits what is taught and emphasizes sanctions rather than rewards.

Dawson Orr, Highland Park's superintendent agreed.

"By no means are we suggesting that we don't need assessments or all testing is bad," Orr said. "What we're saying is it's become disproportionate."

The superintendents say there are other ways to measure the quality of schools.

Sockwell, who has recently shared the report with educators in Georgia and Virginia, said if Texas is able to make such changes, other states will follow.

Cara Mendelsohn, president of the Plano school district's Council of PTAs, said she plans to present the report to her council in March.

She particularly appreciates the superintendent's quest to move from a "one size fits all education" model to a more personalized approach, recognizing the many ways students learn.

"I think it's what we need," Mendelsohn said. "When we start teaching things in a relevant way, kids will succeed."

Dr. Jon H. Fleming, chairman of the board of The Texas Education Reform Foundation, said the document is important.

"Do I agree with everything in there?" he asked. "No."

But it sparks a conversation that needs to be had, he said.

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