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Outlook: Leaders focus on each student

Superintendents promote equity and public education
  • Improving student outcomes will be the top priority for DA readers in 2016.
  • A majority of DA readers said the presidential election would not have a significant impact on education.

The new year may send familiar education challenges in new directions as administrators grapple with an uncertain testing landscape, staff shortages, the increased push for equity and constantly increasing charter competition.

Experts expect education budgets in most states to remain flat in 2016. The pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act should uphold the current Title I formula (aiding two-thirds of U.S. states) but reduce competitive grants.

The availability of standards-aligned test results and the national pushback on over-testing will drive teachers and administrators to work together to better tailor instruction to individual students this year, predicts S. Dallas Dance, superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools.

“We will be looking to see if the insertion of new standards leads to results that mirror the more rigorous work students are doing in classrooms,” Dance says. “Districts will have to figure out how well we’ve implemented these new standards, and to what fidelity.”

Many of the administrative demands of the past few years will carry over, says David Chapin, assistant professor in the Michigan State University Department of Educational Administration, and former superintendent of East Lansing Public Schools. He predicts superintendents and principals will focus more on directing instruction and using formative assessment data to drive class work.

Student achievement tops list of leaders’ 2016 priorities

Improving student outcomes and improving faculty’s instructional practice will be among the highest priorities for school superintendents this year, according to a DA survey of K12 leaders.

Like last year, more than 75 percent of respondents said improving student outcomes was a top priority, while 43 percent said improving their faculty’s instructional practice was a key focus area. About 30 percent said implementing new learning standards and assessments was a major goal, down from more than 50 percent in 2015.

Administrators plan to implement significant new career-readiness and health and wellness initiatives for students in 2016.

Some 91 percent of respondents say they will focus on high school career-readiness programs this year, while 70 percent plan to create new programs in middle school science, health and wellness. And 83 percent of respondents said reading and language arts initiatives will be the focus at the elementary school level.

Construction projects will take priority in many districts, as 35 percent of administrators say they plan to begin or expand an initiative to repair or replace aging infrastructure—the same number as last year.

More than 31 percent plan to launch a building construction or renovation project—down from 40 percent in 2015. However, 25 percent of respondents say that they do not have funding for new facilities projects.

About 32 percent of administrators say they will continue to use personnel rather than outside contractors for non-instructional operations, such as food and janitorial services, transportation and ground maintenance, because it is more reliable. And 29 percent say they will continue to do so because it is less expensive than an outside service.

Looking ahead to the presidential election, 59 percent of administrators said they do not believe that U.S. public education will be significantly impacted by who wins the presidential election.

Some 12 percent said they believe education would improve more under a Republican administration, while 29 percent said they believe it would improve more under a Democratic administration.

The DA administration outlook survey was part of a broader set of trend surveys deployed to readers in late 2015. More than 300 district leaders participated in these particular surveys. —A.D.

“There is a lot of pressure about high-stakes testing, teacher evaluations, teacher effectiveness, the Common Core and funding issues,” Chapin says. “As leaders we need to find some balance in those conversations to make them about what’s best for students and schools given the local conditions.”

Testing cutbacks

President Barack Obama in October called for districts to cap assessments so that no student spends more than 2 percent of classroom annual instruction time taking tests. Administrators will continue to reexamine and eliminate tests, while more parents will likely opt their children out of high-stakes assessments, experts say.

The standardized testing landscape remains unsettled in many states. Ohio is on its third different exam in three years. “Many of our state legislatures and departments of education are trying to grapple with the testing issue, and people feel unsettled at the moment,” says Mary Ronan, superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools. “We’re trying to look at the whole child and say, ‘In these unsettled times, here’s something we can all focus on besides a test score.’”

Beyond testing, the district will increase social-emotional learning curricula, student advising time, and access to AP courses. Ronan predicts more districts in the new year will focus on building well-rounded students rather than simply training them to pass standardized tests.

Teacher and principal shortage

Districts hit with a wave of teacher shortages and principal vacancies have found few qualified candidates to fill the positions. Education leaders expect the shortages to worsen in 2016.

“There is a perception that teachers are getting beaten up in public education, and people are saying that teachers need to do more,” Dance says. “If [prospective teachers] feel they are being demoralized, they won’t go into the field.”

Dance recommends that administrators, when recruiting, emphasize their support for teachers in their district. Reaching out to college students their junior and senior year and offering them early contracts prior to graduation will likely become more popular, he adds. Administrators may also move up the dates when current teachers are expected to report retirements or resignations so there’s more time to fill those positions.

Negative public perception, funding problems and turbulent negotiations with unions discourage people from teaching, Chapin says. “We have to become less reactive to the politics surrounding education and more proactive in improving learning for our students,” he adds. “We need to find ways to attract people to our profession.”

Chapin recommends collaborating with universities on teacher preparation, improving financial incentives for new teachers with incentives like signing bonuses and giving teachers leadership opportunities earlier in their careers.

Dual-enrollment programs

New, more intensive dual-enrollment partnerships with local community colleges and universities allow students to move beyond AP courses in earning enough college credits to graduate high school with an associate’s degree. “It’s the wave of the future—students can pick up college credit while still in high school,” Ronan says. “We’re trying to make college more affordable for families.”

Administrators will focus more aggressively on career readiness in 2016, Ronan says. Cincinnati Public Schools’ growing career program exposes students to industries in the local area that lack qualified workers, such as health professions, advanced manufacturing and transportation.

Differentiated PD

Experts predict an increase in the number of teacher leaders and distributed district leadership models this year. For example, superintendents may appoint groups of teacher leaders to help with widespread implementation of new programs.

“Principals have an increased responsibility to ensure good instruction is happening in every classroom, and to adopt new teacher evaluation frameworks,” says Susan Race, director of ASCD Learning Solutions. “The need for site-based teacher leaders who can help grow and inform teachers in the building will keep getting bigger in 2016.”

Digital PD options, such as virtual coaches, will continue to grow in popularity this year. These options will also allow for more differentiated instruction for teachers and principals, as online programs can adapt to their specific needs, Race says.

And she expects to see an even greater focus on principal PD. “Making sure principals are getting the same kind of great opportunities to learn and grow professionally will not only help them be better, but last longer in jobs which are very stressful,” Race says.

Superintendent Ruben Alejandro of Weslaco ISD in southern Texas predicts that students will play a larger role in providing tech-focused PD to teachers in 2016. “It helps teachers understand that educating students has to be a partnership, and that we will never know as much as kids know about technology,” Alejandro says.

Ensuring equity

Minorities now account for more than half of U.S. students. And more than half of all K12 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“There is a conversation that has to happen nationally, in terms of how to make sure every single kid regardless of race, gender or poverty level is getting their needs met,” Dance says. “It’s a hard conversation from a district level and you need the whole system involved.”

In Weslaco ISD, located just 45 miles from the Mexican border, 98 percent of the district’s 17,500 students are Hispanic, and 86 percent are economically disadvantaged.

The district provides universal breakfast and lunch, and Alejandro wants to also serve an evening dinner to students who may not get one at home. He predicts that in the coming year, more administrators will partner with businesses and community members to create mentoring and health programs that bolster learning readiness for such disadvantaged students.

“There’s no one formula—different districts, based on culture, demographics, and geographical area will have to come up with different ways to maximize learning for all students,” Alejandro says.

Advocating for public education

Enrollment competition with charter schools remains a contentious issue entering 2016, mainly given the funding factor, experts say. Nationwide, 2.57 million students enrolled in charter schools in 2013-14—up from 1.29 million in 2007-08, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

“We need to do a better job at communicating what public schools across the country are doing. The United States has the lowest dropout rates and highest graduation rates in history,” Dance says.

Many schools now use social media and other tools to share success stories with the community—rather than waiting for the local media or someone else to report the stories, he adds.

While some parents flock to charters they perceive as more innovative than public schools, administrators must show the community the many advancements made by public schools, Dance says.

For example, Dance created the Twitter hashtag, #BCPS, for anyone tweeting within the district. Teachers post pictures to show parents and community members how their children are using 1-to-1 technology.

And Cincinnati Public Schools administrators published a report called “Measure What Matters” to give community members a better idea of the district’s successes—beyond test scores. They explain the details of the district’s health centers, social-emotional learning focus and new facilities.

“I’m a firm believer in public education as the great equalizer,” Ronan says. “We need to get the word out.”

Alison DeNisco is news editor.