Special Report
School & District Management Opinion

Seeing Opportunities in 21st-Century Challenges

By McKell Withers — January 03, 2014 4 min read

Changing demographics, online social networks, and political posturing all add to the complexities of operating successful school systems in this still-new 21st century.

To nurture systemwide, sustainable excellence, it takes a dynamic and student-focused school district. But, if district-level efforts at school transformation are to be more efficient and effective, what role should the superintendent—essentially a district’s CEO—play to move schools toward higher levels of student achievement? Will these district chiefs manage their organizations well enough to create the stability necessary for competent and independent work, and can they lead their colleagues through controversies by modeling the risk-taking necessary for innovation to flourish?

In a demanding education environment, it requires attention to both thoughtful management and purposeful leadership to invest in the learning needs of young people proactively. This responsibility means recognizing and balancing the evidence we have to both reinforce successful practices and change what needs to be changed (achievement/performance gaps) at the same time. As the superintendent of the 25,000-student Salt Lake City school system, I think about these challenges constantly.

It is often reported that our nation’s students are performing somewhere near the middle of the pack when compared with students of other developed countries. Yet there are collections of students at the state level who outperform the students of other nations. Within those states, there are students at the district level who outperform the state’s students as a whole, students at the school level who outperform the district, and students at the classroom level who outperform their schools.

Some political measures of school success seem to expect all students to be above “average"" in all areas, but those holding that expectation fail to understand that some of those instruments actually define “average” as an average. Maybe we could help by asking such individuals if they really expect all students to be above the median score; if they say yes, at least we would know we had a good starting point for future discussions.

Now, consider our evolving school population. One could ask, are changing demographics a good thing, a bad thing, or a given? If you have ever been a public school teacher, you know that a changing demographic of just one student in your classroom can sometimes make or break the collective improvement of the group. But more diversity should lead to fewer excuses and more attention to the need for high expectations for all students. I write this as the leader of a district where, in 2013, 58 percent of our students are members of racial or ethnic minorities (up from 49 percent of the student body in 2003). Thirty-seven percent of Salt Lake City’s public school students are English-language learners (our students speak more than 100 languages), and 63 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

While poverty is clearly the most consistent obstacle to success for all, there is still an expectation gap between some educators and some students.

BRIC ARCHIVE

When expectations are not at the highest levels for all students, teachers and school systems miss the opportunity to identify and remove barriers to higher levels of achievement. Sometimes, it is as simple as noticing and correcting a lack of access to learning opportunities (the availability of books, Internet access, translated material, and so on). Other times, what is clearly needed is an investment in building cultural competencies focused on improving student learning. In any case, changing demographics provide great opportunities, not barriers.

As to the new technology-enhanced world of social networking, for all of its upsides, there are some interesting downsides as well.

Many in earlier generations were certain that the newspaper would never publish anything that was not the truth. But even the most diligent journalist can be persuaded by faulty “evidence” collected during his or her reporting, and then inadvertently persuade others. We often only learn later that that evidence actually came from an unreliable source—or no source at all. So how many in the current generation are convinced that they have found the truth by reading claims circulated on various social networks?

Attacks on the Common Core State Standards offer one example of where this comes into play. Concerns are often based on parents’ fears of content that could harm their children, but these criticisms can spread and transform when shared online. The various forms of social media create new complexity and need to evolve to include trusted sources, such as teachers and principals, who can then use these tools to break down communication barriers and articulate their high expectations for all students.

Finally, polarized political posturing may occasionally be entertaining to watch, but it rarely if ever helps bring diverse stakeholders together in meaningful ways to improve schools. “Transparency” is often claimed as the reason for using irrelevant or misleading data to make a political point, but the spread of misinformation or incomplete stories during politically motivated campaigns or debates contributes to sustaining opposing positions, rather than focusing on the needs of young people. While this phenomenon is not unique to the 21st century, now more than ever we need to enhance—rather than avoid—thoughtful coalitions, compromises, and collaborative efforts to fight this tendency and make progress for all of our students.

All in all, our new challenges are really new opportunities. If we balance the management needs of our districts with the leadership needs of their members, positive change is within reach.

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