If you want to understand students, you go where the students are. But if you want to understand superintendents, principals, and district leaders--who are critical decision makers when it comes to buying education technology--you go to ASCD.
Close to 11,000 administrators attended ASCD’s Annual Conference in Chicago this March. If you want to discover what matters to administrators, this is the conference to attend. The major session trends weren’t unexpected: Common Core State Standards, PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments, new teacher and principal evaluations, improving mathematics and reading skills, and integrating technology. Bullying was a surprising hot topic as well with multiple sessions, all full. (I’m hoping this is a trend towards awareness, rather than an increase in incidents.) But the nuances to the conversation were different and reflect the different perspective and concerns that administrators have than what you might hear at other educational conferences.
The anxiety in the rooms at the PARCC and Smarter Balanced update sessions was palpable. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been around since 2010, so schools have begun unpacking the implications for their curriculum. However, the assessments are often the tail that wags the dog. Without clear indicators and sample assessment items, schools have felt like they’re steering toward a moving target. The few sample assessments items shared during the PARCC and Smarter Balanced sessions were treated like gold by attendees--this is what they’ve been waiting for.
Charlotte Danielson’s session, “Integrating the Common Core State Standards into the Danielson Framework for Teaching,” was equally packed and equally filled with a sense of anxiety. (Her framework has been adopted by many states as part of their new teacher and principal evaluations.) With so much uncertainty around the new assessments, anticipating the new teacher evaluations is understandably causing stress in most states. In fact, the most frequently cited reason for states contemplating dropping out of implementing the CCSS is the push for the new assessments to be included in teacher and principal evaluations.
Technology and Blended Learning
There were more sessions on blended learning and integrating technology than in previous years, but nowhere near the extent that one encounters at an ISTE or FETC. Administrators are less focused on trying out what’s new and more interested in technology that solves immediate problems and improves instruction.
The term blended learning means different things depending on the audience. Principals and superintendents asked each other questions about the nuances of implementing BYOD, 1:1 programs, online learning opportunities, flipping classrooms and choosing technology for their districts.
One side note: Surprisingly very few sessions covered science or STEM topics, an alarming trend. After the release of the Next Generation Science Standards at the end of this month, let’s hope that science enters the conversation again. Obama’s highlighting of STEM education during his State of the Union Address should also refocus attention on this crucial area in education.
What Administrators Share with Each Other
Perhaps more revealing however are the conversations outside of the sessions. Administrators value the opinions of their fellow peers exponentially more than those from publishers, service providers, or even researchers. Frequently they joked about how everything is CCSS-aligned, despite no one really fully understanding what that means yet.
While most attending administrators were generally upbeat, they were all wrestling with the tension of preparing for the full spectrum of education reform changes—new standards, new assessments (even the SAT is now changing), new teacher and principal evaluations--while also being held accountable under the old systems. With Congress gridlocked, there’s also not likely to be any immediate relief from NCLB, making the situation worse.
Of particular focus during conversations was how to provide appropriate professional development for teachers while not overwhelming them. Eric Sheninger, the principal of New Milford High School in New Jersey, shared his strategies for managing change in his presentation, “Keys to Sustaining Change,” addressing possible strategies for overcoming barriers.
Whole Child, Whole Teacher
An important counter-trend running through the conference was a focus on the “whole child” and the “whole teacher.” Launched in 2007, the ASCD Whole Child Initiative provides a counterweight to the increasing focus on assessments and accountability. (There is unanimous consensus that drill-and-kill is not the answer. ) Principals care deeply about and are passionately proud of their students. Many of the sessions this year under this umbrella tried to help administrators find ways to keep the focus on what they believe is good for kids as they prepare for education reform initiatives.
The keynote speakers, Freeman A. Hrabowski, President of University of Maryland Baltimore County, and Maya Angelou both reminded us of the power that teachers and principals have over the lives of children. Hrabowski advocated raising expectations for all students as we prepare them for the complex, 21st-century global workplace. If we believe that all students can achieve instead of dismissing their potential because of race, socioeconomic status, class or gender, we will change lives, he implores. Hrabowshi wants students to own their own learning.
The ever-uplifting Maya Angelou spoke of “rainbows in the cloud” as a metaphor for her appreciation of those who have been a source of inspiration in her life, and challenged her audience to be “rainbows” for others. Her speech resonated with administrators and teachers feeling overwhelmed and underappreciated, and reminded them that the work they do is crucial and can change the direction of the lives of children.
My conference takeaways:
- Administrators and teachers care passionately about advocating for the whole child--they want students to have well-rounded educations where true learning takes place. They worry the education reform initiatives will rob children of these experiences.
- Administrators are overwhelmed by trying to manage the uncertainty of all of the education reform initiatives.
- Administrators trust each other exponentially more than vendors or researchers.
- Administrators want to provide blended learning opportunities but are largely disappointed in the available options.
- The educational system is not designed to allow for the significant professional development that is needed to prepare teachers to meet the demands of educating their students for the 21st century.
- Despite all obstacles, administrators continue to find ways to make it all work--they fully support their teachers and their students however they can.