Where’s the vision?
This story begins with conversations among school superintendents and other school leaders. Such discussions are often dominated by compliance issues such as how to implement the latest mandate from Austin or Washington. At other times, the exchanges relate to school finance, politics, changing demographics, challenges of technology and its impact on students and society, the test-focused craze, dysfunctional school boards, and the negative impacts of the present accountability mechanisms on students and teachers. On occasion, we lament how we allow ourselves to be co-opted into supporting policies that we know are counterproductive and take away local options, and how we permit ourselves to be discouraged from being more assertive in representing our local communities in support of meaningful improvements.
But when the discussion turns to thoughts about the future for Texas public education, no clear picture emerges to frame the conversation. We sense the present direction is wrong but what direction would we propose? Most of us have some understandings of the future we want in our districts, but even those descriptions are framed by the present state accountability labels, as if reaching “Exemplary Status” defines it. Can we begin a new and different kind of dialogue about the future? Should we challenge the underlying assumptions on which so many bureaucratic practices are based? In the absence of a clear picture of the preferred future, should we as public school leaders define and express our own vision to “get the ball rolling”?
What are we for?
The second part of the story has its origin in the state educational policymaking environment and associated debates. Politicians, state business leaders, and their policy advisors have been the principal architects of the present system — not school superintendents, not principals, not teachers, and not parents. What we hear most often from these external decision makers is that they know what school superintendents are against, but don’t know what they are for.
If they are asking us to describe what we are for in a broad based and coherent way, then we tend to come up short in spite of our issue-specific legislative programs, with the exception of the principles we favored in the school finance issue. Otherwise, we often gave inadequate answers. What evolved from these interactions was the assertion that we could answer the “for” question only if we were clear about our relevant beliefs, principles, and premises and the vision they would generate. One thing we know for sure is that we object strongly to the present debilitating conditions for students and teachers generated by the false assumptions that underlie many current policies. Therefore, we feel duty-bound to discover and express the answers to the “for” question, not in a piece-meal fashion but in a comprehensive and fundamental manner, and in a way that makes sense of the digital revolution now impacting every aspect of our world and our lives.
Where did we start?
The catalyst for bringing these ideas forward was Keith Sockwell, retired superintendent of Northwest ISD, and, at the time, with SHW Group LLP, an architectural firm in Plano. In his visits with a number of superintendents around the state during the spring and summer of 2006, these questions kept coming up again and again. The “what are we for” and the “no vision” bug bit him hard. So he asked SHW Group if they would underwrite such a quest with “no strings attached.” The only stipulations SHW Group made, through its Chief Executive Officer Gary Keep, were to take the long-term view, think creatively, follow through, and ask the participating superintendents’ school districts to support the effort by paying their travel costs and a minimal fee, and, more importantly, supporting their commitment and the time to make it happen.
We anticipated that the effort would require at least a yearlong pledge, and that it would be professionally developmental for participants. Secondly, it became clear that follow through could involve significant resistance from the backers and benefactors of the present state-controlled system. However, our confidence in the democratic process was such that if parents and other local community members were empowered, they would rise in support of the new vision if it were clear, reflected their values, and appealed to their interests and needs and dreams of success for their children.
What were the next steps?
Sockwell contacted John Horn, retired superintendent, Mesquite ISD, and now a Senior Associate with the Schlechty Center
for Leadership in School Reform. He has worked with several Texas school districts and has been facilitating planning and goal setting sessions for leaders of the Texas Association of School Administrators
. He was also the primary facilitator some years back when 11 educational leadership organizations came together to develop the core principles around a school finance system that would provide adequacy and equity and meet constitutional requirements.
Along with Frank Kelly, director of educational facilities planning, SHW Group, Sockwell and Horn met with Johnny Veselka, Executive Director of TASA, who saw the need for such a visioning effort, eagerly agreed, and with the TASA Executive Committee’s unanimous support, obtained approval of the Texas Leadership Center to be the fiscal agent. TASA would provide coordination and other staff support. SHW Group agreed to pay for facilitation, materials, cost of resource speakers, and publication of the initial draft product that would be used to foster intentional conversations around the agenda promoted by the proposed principles and premises.
The Visioning Institute then became a reality. The Institute contracted with the Schlecthy Center to help design and facilitate the work sessions. A small nucleus of superintendents from the larger group was invited to form what became known as the Design Team. They met with Lennie Hay from the Schlechty Center and John Horn to develop clarity about the objective, map out a 15-month timeline, select topics for discussion germane to the objective, identify experts in those fields, and design each session as a developmental experience for participants that would free them up to think creatively, elicit insights from their own experience, and to develop a sense of collegiality and moral commitment to the goal and to each other. Horn worked with the Design Team between sessions to adapt and meet the needs of the participants so their contributions could be maximized.
How were other participants selected?
The superintendents invited to participate were those with whom Sockwell had been visiting, and who, for the most part, were SHW Group clients. The Texas Leadership Center Board of Directors and TASA officers were also invited. Horn and Hay advised the Design Team that maximum of 35 participants would be the most conducive to having the type of disciplined conversations and dialogue needed to reach the stated goal.
When the 35 participants were identified, it became clear that the group included an appropriate sample of superintendents representing various types of districts, serving over 1.2 million students. The Design Team members believed that if the initial proposal were a “work in progress” or an “initial draft,” that any who desired could help to shape its continuing evolution, that if it were inspiring and captured the spirit of what any similarly constituted group of superintendents would also produce, then it would be welcomed and well received.
The original participants were sensitive to not make presumptions about speaking for all. We viewed our work from the perspective of how we would react if we had not been part of the original group. Our conclusion was that if it were kept as a “work in progress” until anyone who desired could weigh in with suggestions and changes, then it would be judged on its quality and relevance.
It was agreed that an extensive written record of the discussion and video recordings would be made to ensure that, at the end, the thoughts and contributions of all had been captured and honored in the resulting product. However, to ensure completely candid discussions and protection from those who might misunderstand such free and open dialogue, it was agreed that no video or quotes of individuals would be made public without their consent.
Now that the initial “work in progress” document has been offered, the SHW Group has agreed to support further dissemination and public information strategies to give our colleagues the opportunities described above and to put “feet and legs” to the more fully developed ideas and policy initiatives that emerge. They will also support efforts to extend conversations in local communities, with other organizations, and with state leaders in hopes that many of them will embrace the statements of vision, principles, and premises required to create the future envisioned.