10-12 Get Your Message Out

10-12 Get Your Message Out

The ‘new normal’ for school board meetings?

By Brad Hughes
KSBA Director of Member Support Services

In a November 2010 address to the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan talked about what he saw as the “the new normal” for America’s schools.

“I am here to talk today about what has been called the New Normal. My hope is that New Normal will encourage educators, principals, unions, district leaders, state chiefs, parents, lawmakers, and governors to explore productive alternatives to old ways of doing things” he said. “I believe the New Normal can be a wake-up call to America – and a time to rethink how we invest in education for our nation’s children.”

Since then Duncan – and later Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday – have talked about the “new normal” in terms ranging from being asked to do more with fewer resources to meeting higher expectations for student achievement under the common core standards.

But on a recent late summer evening, I had the good fortune to witness what could become the “new normal” for school board meetings. And, at least to this observer, it offers significant promise for improved support of public schools, greater comprehension of how student progress is measured and maybe even creation of a new chorus of board voices to help tell their districts’ stories.

An eye-opening evening
On a return trip from Paducah to Louisville, pure chance led me to the monthly meeting of the Lyon County Board of Education. The first part of the session was pretty routine: paying bills, recognizing staff and students, talking with an architect.

But then the agenda turned to a presentation by Supervisor of Instruction Diane Still. It was about the just-released ACT scores for juniors and seniors and the high school graduation rate. There were the common comparisons of this year with last year, and charts showing how the scores and rates ranked in the region and state (an approach I’d recommend to others not already doing so).

But it was when Still and Superintendent Quinn Sutton transitioned from these data points to the places they hold in Kentucky’s new Unbridled Learning assessment and accountability system that things got really interesting.

Patiently, almost like a teacher in her classroom, Still explained how the ACT scores are part of the high school and district college and career readiness calculations. Then she rolled on to the inclusion of the graduation rate in the new system’s final scores that will come out later this month. And she wove in information about how student and school progress in earlier grades will be factored in.

At one point, I began to watch the faces of board Chairman George Glass and members Jim Bannister, Denny Gray, Jerry Dunning and Margaret McQuigg. There was an intensity of attention, almost as if they were straining to take in what Still was teaching, understanding that this wasn’t just important, it was something they needed to comprehend at a higher level.

At least to this visitor, it was a magical half hour. School board members posing questions, getting clarification, coming to see the numbers on the PowerPoint as much more than one more report, and “Time to move on.”

This is the type of presentation and discussion that is so needed by every one of Kentucky’s 174 school boards.  And not just because as education leaders, board members ought to be able to understand the new measuring system.

Boards already are being asked to allocate thinning district resources to help this school add an instructional program or that school beef up its classroom aides, buy new technology or finance substitutes so regular teachers can attend critical professional development sessions. To make those choices, boards will have to ask questions like, “How will this address your gap scores?” or “What will the resource you want do to meet your growth targets?”

On a related note, I also observed the reporter for the local newspaper taking notes furiously – but not continuously – throughout the presentation. District leaders would be well advised, when educating the board about Unbridled Learning, to make a little extra effort to ensure that those who write the stories read by parents and the taxpaying public really get it.

The Last Word
Certainly, I hope that the Lyon County Board of Education meeting I stumbled on isn’t the only example of efforts to increase board members’ comprehension of Unbridled Learning. Those who are attending this year’s KSBA Fall Regional Meetings are on the receiving end of similar efforts to raise that knowledge level.

When the test scores become public, the public is going to have questions. The more local leaders who can provide answers, or at least point to the professionals who can do so, the better our shot to reduce confusion and launch Kentucky’s new way of measuring public education in the Commonwealth, student by student, school by school and district by district.

And that’s a message worth getting out.

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