A Letter to Principals About Levers

Dear Principal,
I hope you enjoyed a few days off after a busy year.  To the normal craziness of spring, you probably had the heartache of considering budget cuts and layoffs.
You probably work in a state and district that imposes a lot of constraints on your hiring, curriculum, materials, school hours, and facilities.  After food and transportation, if your district takes more than 5% for administration your kids are getting shorted.
Let’s think about the improvement levers you’ve been able to influence:
1) Culture: the behavior you model, the tone of your communications, and the way you deal with challenges shape the culture of your school community.
2) Goals: the way you describe and champion learning expectations for your students and goals for your staff may be your most important role. The habits of mind that you encourage could shape student thinking for decades.
3) Instruction: the way you coach and support teachers can mean the difference between students achieving a year of academic growth or not.
4) Hiring: while you may have limited degrees of freedom, hiring the best teaching talent and making teaching assignments are the most important decisions you are involved in.
5) Supplementals: you may have limited degrees of freedom over curriculum, instructional materials, or your master schedule (if you lead a secondary school), but you and your teachers probably have a fair amount of flexibility on supplemental materials and now that many are free and digital (like Khan Academy), they can make a big difference.
6) Parents: you get the kids that come to your school and the parents and guardians that come with them.  To a some degree you may be able to influence attendance, homework support and productive summer activities.  You may find a few classroom volunteers and some fund raisers.
7) Partners: if you work at it and get lucky, you may create some community partnerships that make a difference for your kids.  Maybe you rally enough support to start Communities in Schools or find a supportive business partner or Rotary club.
You may expand that list of levers, but let’s agree on two things. First, there’s a lot you can do to benefit student achievement within the historical framework of a big responsibility with limited authority.  Second, the flip side of that coin is that you operate with the severe constraints. Your school model probably relies on a short school day and agrarian calendar.  Age cohorts progress through your school based largely on seat time.  And your success all comes down to individual teacher practices classroom by classroom.  When your kids need twice as much time and more targeted instruction, the basic American school model doesn’t give you many degrees of freedom—until now.
For almost twenty years schools have sprinkled technology on top of historical practices, schedules, and structures.  It hasn’t made much of a dent in the achievement gap and only occasionally contributed to gains.  But the dramatic growth of online learning and new school models that creatively blend the best of online and onsite learning have created a new opportunity set for principals.  Blended learning can extend the day, lengthen the learning year, target instruction, improve quality, expand choices, and save money.
The transition to a blended model won’t be easy.  It requires new staffing patterns to save money and boost productivity.  But if you’re already making cuts, a differentiated model will help your best teachers impact the achievement of 250 students instead of 25 students.  You can selectively utilize remote teachers for specific courses and services and can save money and improve services.
Your students will need 1:1 Internet access.  Let’s assume your district hasn’t made that a priority.  Between these five strategies, you should be able to make the shift over the next three years.
1) leasing netbooks.  All major vendors will help you identify a leasing strategy.  Google Chromebooks, a full sized web appliance, is available for about $20 per month.
2) low cost tablets.  Some tablets are available for less than $200 but be careful of bundled connection costs.  Try to stick with 10 inch screens if you want students to use them for writing.
3) BYOT: allowing students to bring their own technology to school can help cut down on the cost of 1:1 access and may allow you to use Title 1 funds to
4) Piloting and phasing: you may need to phase in the technology (along with staffing changes) over three or four years.  Technology pilots are a great thing for a local Rotary club to sponsor.
5) Cost shifting: stop buying print and focus on digital resources.
And speaking of pilots, math seems to be the easiest place to start.  There is a ton of good free content and lots of benefit to individual progress models.
If you lead an elementary,  rotating students through a learning lab like Rocketship Education does, is a good start.
Blended learning is a big emerging lever that creates more opportunity for your school community.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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