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Urban School Leaders Conference: On Bringing "Extra"

Guest blog post by Jaclyn Zubrzycki @jzubrzycki

Indianapolis, Ind.

Superintendents, school board members, and school leaders from the nation's cities gathered in Indianapolis this week for the 56th annual fall conference of the Council of the Great City Schools.

One of the conference's keynotes came from New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who's been writing a lot about winning, losing, and change. Friedman spoke about globalization, technology, and the United States' role on the world stage, drawing from his new book, That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. He said that his research has led him to believe that the nation is at risk of losing its global position if it does not improve the academic performance of its lowest-achieving students. But he said there needs to be just as much focus on fostering the imagination, creativity, and soft skills of all. "Average is dead," he said.

Friedman spoke today at lunch. His suggestions weren't very concrete, but, though he may not have realized it, but he was echoing a lot of the conversation that happened at the sessions over the course of the week. Friedman's advice to students and educators—and anyone looking to succeed in a 21st century economy: Bring "extra". Students not only need to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic; they need to have the ability to relearn, to be imaginative and ready to change, to collaborate. Collaboration, relearning, and change were also running themes in many of the sessions in Indianapolis, both in terms of what schools should be teaching students and how educators should be approaching their own work.

In one session, researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago emphasized the fact that principals need not only to be coaches for their staff, they need to be "coachable" themselves. They needed to be open to learning, open to improving their communication with others. The researchers showed that schools where the principals were involved in an extensive mentorship program broke through plateaus in their schools' performance trajectories on test scores. This language of "coaching" and "coachability" showed up in several sessions on leadership development that I attended. Relearning? Check. Collaboration? Check.

Teachers in New York City spent weeks digging into the common-core standards to figure out how to make them work for the district's large population of English-language learners. After an intense period of work developing curricula, teachers told the program's coordinators that while they weren't sure how much they'd contributed, they had learned from the experience of questioning their assumptions and rethinking how to teach their subjects.

A session about bringing more African-American males into teaching—focusing on work in Cincinnati, Brooklyn, and South Carolina—also emphasized the importance of mentorship, of recruitment, of reorienting teacher training programs to be more diligent in building cultural competency and reaching out to African-American males.

Educators from Fort Worth, Ind., facing a declining school population and the possibility of a state takeover of several schools, said they took the threat of a takeover as a challenge rather than a defeat. Steve Cobb, the district's chief academic officer, said that the district's leaders realized it was teachers, not students, who most needed to change. The educators had to relearn and rethink how to carry out their work.

Friedman's call for everyone to bring "extra" also struck me for another reason. When I worked in D.C. schools, "extra" was slang for overreacting, usually a negative accusation. (A synonym was "doing too much.") A student calling out in class or a teacher who was harsh with her class could equally be called out for being "extra." If I were still a teacher, I can imagine using Friedman's talk to reframe "extra." Extra's not always a bad thing—in fact, it's sticking with doing the bare minimum that's not going to work. Friedman said—to an echo of audience approval—that many teachers already know what it is to give extra. Both "giving extra" and collaborating are not new ideas, but it was interesting to see the connection between Friedman's ideas and some of the ideas and programs that have been stewing in urban districts.

Here's a quick summary of some other conference highlights:
The conference had six strands this year (sounds familiar, common core aficionados?): achievement gaps; professional development; school finance and facilities; leadership, governance, and management; bilingual, refugee, and immigrant education; and special education. There were a few unofficial themes, too: Sessions on working with African-American boys, engaging parents, the common core, and collaboration between districts and other government entities came up in sessions in several threads. (Though the session I really wish I had gotten to go to came before I arrived on Thursday: "The Media: Best Friend or Worst Enemy?" Hmmm....).

The conference also featured speeches from Marc Morial, the CEO of the National Urban League, and by America Ferrara, actress and education advocate. Today's last session was a town hall on bullying led by Education Week's own president and editor-in-chief, Virginia Edwards, which surfaced some interesting suggestions for how schools can prevent bullying by proactively teaching students how to use technology and how to use language respectfully.

A few notable awards were passed out. Boston's superintendent Carol R. Johnson won the 2012 Richard R. Green Award for an outstanding superintendent. Look out for a Q&A with Johnson on this blog early next week.

And Bridget Williams of Orange County was awarded the Queen Smith Award for Excellence in Urban Education during today's lunch. Williams cited her two educator parents and her current superintendent Barbara Jenkins as inspirations.

A final side note: Friedman started off by saying Hillary Clinton should have become secretary of education rather than secretary of state if she wanted to have the most impact on the country's foreign policy. It's striking how education is frequently presented as something that is in service of a greater goal—here, foreign policy; in the presidential debates, economic growth. In the sessions, however, there was much less of this big-picture talk, and a lot more focus on improving leadership training, building parent engagement, helping teachers understand the Common Core, building relationships, and other nitty-gritty school issues. Is it helpful to frame education as a foreign policy issue or an economic issue?

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