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Keeping an Eye on the Big Picture—From a Small Town

By Lonnie Harp — October 12, 2009 5 min read
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I watch my 15-year-old’s thumbs bounce over the tiny number keys of his cellphone, composing a message to a friend. I like to imagine it’s an actual sentence. I ask how he knows what it will take for him to be a success in the future. “Just a second,” he says. He stops texting. I repeat the question. “Get a good education?” he answers tentatively. “Is that right?”

The truth is, it’s my job as a school board member to know the answer to that question. We have to make sure our 1,800-student school district is providing what it takes for all students to be equipped for a successful future beyond high school. Grasping the big picture is a huge challenge, especially when your small-town school system and its surrounding counties lack a shopping mall, a Target, or a white-collar office park.

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Far from anybody’s research triangle, where we’re still cheering for our remaining manufacturing jobs to stay and grow, seizing the reins of the future takes some imagination. Popular books like Disrupting Class, The World Is Flat, The Rise of the Creative Class, The Global Achievement Gap, and Shop Class as Soulcraft stir important issues. The world is changing, and it seems obvious that smart school board members, like the managers of corporations, need to make sure our local education systems are positioned to produce students groomed for their times—not these times or our times.

It’s easy for me to marvel at today’s world. I tell quaint stories about the smell of Liquid Paper back in the days before cut-and-paste commands. I remember my grandfather—a slide-rule guy—wondering who’d ever learn math if they let kids carry calculators to class.

Beloit College in Wisconsin publishes an annual list to jolt professors into reality about the world of college freshmen. From this year’s list: “Members of the class of 2013 won’t be surprised when they can charge a latte on their cellphone and curl up in the corner to read a textbook on an electronic screen. … Carter and Reagan are as distant to them as Truman and Eisenhower were to their parents. Tattoos, once thought ‘lower class,’ are, to them, quite chic. …”

That list is a wake-up call for people working with college students. The imagination of those working with even younger students must stretch much further. In other words, I need to be thinking about the demands of 2013 to do right by today’s high school freshmen. I need to consider what 2021 will hold to do what’s best for this year’s 1st graders.

Finding those bearings is hard to keep on the school board radar. The agenda is rightly filled with pressing work, from putting together budgets that meet as many needs as possible to ensuring safe buildings that get academic results while meeting legal and policy requirements.

The list of priority issues is long, but sizing up the future needs to be near the top. Arranging a firsthand look can be a good start.

The sprawling Naval Training Center in San Diego is a long way from small-town central Kentucky. The massive former military complex is being redeveloped as “an urban village” complete with condos, cafes, and a Trader Joe’s. My scouting expedition involved an extra day tacked on to a trip to the National School Boards Association’s annual conference last spring. I spent a day and a half at High Tech High School, a campus of schools built on the ideas of strong student engagement with both content and teachers, real-world learning experiences, and a requirement that all students will be able to describe what they’ve learned.

A freshman science student explained how an alternator generates electricity as she pedaled a stationary bicycle that she and classmates built to power a light bulb. In a senior literature class, groups of students created videos set to music to capture the genre of a chosen short story.

Example after example at the high school and middle school took student work and rigor in impressive new directions. The up-close look at the strategy and results—and the chance to talk to the students and adults—confirmed the value of really understanding new approaches to ramping up challenge and engagement in schools.

Nothing about current times makes preparing for the future any more part of the school board’s role than it’s always been. The difference is recognizing that changing dynamics in education and the economy mean we can’t follow routine to deliver the kind of performance that’s necessary.

I’m eager to seek out schools designed to transform student learning, especially when their approach is a response to preparing students for a sophisticated world.

The harder part is keeping up with the facets of change in the world that awaits after high school commencement. The criteria for college admissions, in many places, are open to creative new thinking. College-entrance exams are expanding. Military careers and assignments are increasingly high-tech. Impressive computer-based learning opportunities continue to grow.

Wallace Report: Leading for Learning

The sixth annual Leading for Learning report, funded by The Wallace Foundation, examines the school board’s role in education leadership.
Click here to read the full report.

Where do all these signs lead?

If school board members are committed to creating the best possible schools, we need to find the answers and keep that big-picture vision front and center. As the link between communities and schools, we must connect our expectations to reality and think long-term. Board members can bring the focus back to big ideas, cutting through the daily details and complications school leaders must juggle. We need to be the finders and the keepers of the tea leaves that will make school a path to the world that awaits.

I’m keeping my notebook handy, as my thumbs don’t move fast enough to plug my thoughts into a phone. I don’t have the answers yet, but I am intrigued with what our board and school leadership have come up with so far and the promise it holds for our children, our schools, and our community.

A special report funded by The Wallace Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2009 edition of Education Week as Keeping an Eye on the Big Picture—From a Small Town

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