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Bryant urges leaders to keep schooling relevant
March 12, 2008

Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association (NSBA), told an audience of Illinois public school leaders that today's education system, increasingly driven by federal requirements, faces irrelevance unless leaders bridge the gap between how students live and how they learn.

Bryant was the featured speaker at IASB's 'Rally for Public Education' held Feb. 27 in Lombard. The event drew 237 school board members, superintendents and other school leaders. Other speakers included Michael D. Johnson, IASB executive director, and Mark C. Metzger, IASB president.

Johnson pointed to the strong historical ties between IASB and NSBA. He reported, for example, that Illinois association executives played a central role in the creation of NSBA. "In February 1940 [when] the first national association for school board members was formed, Illinois was a founding state. In 1945 they were reorganized and Robert Cole, the first full-time executive of IASB was the secretary. In 1948 the organization became NSBA and was housed at Northwestern University until moving to Washington, D.C. in 1975," Johnson noted.

NSBA's executive director, in fact, spent much of her early career in Illinois, serving as vice president of the professional education division of a Chicago management firm for 12 years. She later served as executive director of the American Association of University Women until she was appointed to lead NSBA in July 1996.

Bryant spoke to the state of public education, discussing the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act, in particular, and NSBA's recommendations for changing the federal law, acknowledging that changes in education are necessary. "Teaching both basic skills and 21st century skills are essential and, when done concurrently, they reinforce one another," she said, adding that is why preparing children to succeed must become the driving force behind school district programs and budgets.

"Our students are not just about the three R's anymore, and nor should our schools be. We need to create an entrepreneurial spirit in our students that will propel them into the future as the world continues to grow and change," Bryant said.

While NCLB has made schools increasingly test oriented, the law has also shifted the focus of schools toward data-driven decision making, and that is a good thing, she argued, for school leaders must use sound data in order to make the best decisions for public schools.

"Unfortunately, the problem comes when that data is skewed, unsupported, and my biggest issue – insufficient, which it is often under NCLB. We are measuring too little and too narrowly and basing an entire accountability system around it," Bryant said.

Research shows NCLB reduces class time spent on subjects other than reading and math, according to NSBA's top executive. Studies show, she said, that 71 percent of the nation's 15,000 school districts have reduced their hours of instructional time spent on history, music and other subjects in order to open up more time for reading and math, and Bryant said this practice must end.

NSBA is pushing for "much-needed changes" to NCLB and Bryant listed what her organization believes is wrong with the federal law. "First, funding levels are far from what Congress and the Bush Administration promised. Second, we have an accountability system that over-relies on narrow tests, causing the mislabeling of even our best schools as 'failing' or the proverbial 'needs improvement,' even though they are making progress. And, three, we have a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn't work for our nation's 48 million diverse students," she said.

NSBA is supporting Congressional bill H.R. 648, introduced by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), with 28 Republican and Democratic sponsors. The bill includes more than 40 recommendations for "common-sense improvements" that Bryant believes address many of the unintended consequences of the law.

H.R. 648 is consistent with the recommendations developed by NSBA, and according to Bryant: "It grants greater flexibility to states and local school districts and promotes the use of growth models for school districts to use instead of a one-size-fits-all proficiency model dictated in NCLB. It allows schools and school districts to target resources to those students who need the most attention instead of labeling the entire school as 'needing improvement' because one small subgroup of children failed to meet AYP."

Bryant urged those in attendance at the rally, a joint meeting of eight IASB divisions located in the Chicago-land area (DuPage, Kishwaukee, Lake County, North Cook, South Cook, Starved Rock, Three Rivers, and West Cook) to get involved by working together to improve NCLB. Among her suggestions were joining one of the advocacy networks of NSBA, such as the National Affiliate Advocacy Network.

"Becoming a part of these networks will help you stay informed and inspire you to act. And perhaps most important, keep the conversation going in your communities, because public opinion does matter.

"We must be the ones to shape public opinion," Bryant added. "We must be the ones to start the dialogue, and the ones to keep it going. The more information the public gets from us, the more they will see a clear picture of our nation's schools."

"So, again, how can you be a leader for public education? One, work to change NCLB; two, demand data and drive district or school-wide improvement, and three, get involved in IASB and leadership. Keep the conversation open and going with your community. And you've got a great tool to help you," she urged.

Another resource is the Center for Public Education, which NSBA launched two years ago and is supported by IASB. The center is an online resource for use by school board members, superintendents and the public intended to offer "balanced information" in laymen's terms about public schools and what schools are really doing.

"Go look at the correct interpretation of international test scores – learn how to explain dropout rates so the community member will understand. And view the success stories – districts and schools that will make you proud and give you great ideas for your own district, she said.

Bryant exhorted her audience to realize that they, too, have what it takes to get students to the next level, and to turn 20th century classrooms into 21st century learning laboratories.

"The good news is that you do not have to do it alone; you have two critical partners to help you – organizations that are designed to serve you: the Illinois Association of School Boards and the National School Boards Association."

In closing, she recalled an ancient Chinese proverb: "If your vision is for one year, plant rice. If your vision is for 10 years, plant trees. But if your vision is for 100 years, educate children."

Bryant noted that her audience already has that long-term vision. But by virtue of having such a vision, there is an awesome responsibility attached, as well.

"You are the visionaries of our future because you will lead our school districts well into the future and make sure our children will become our 21st century leaders," Bryant said.

Success stories from Illinois districts

Illinois is filled with many public school success stories, according to Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association. As part of her presentation at the 'Rally for Public Education' on Feb. 27, Bryant cited several such examples:

Citing information from Board President Greg Ignoffo of Leyden Township High School District 212, Bryant said that district had been striving to create a strong culture for student achievement in the high school. But the 3,600-student high school had a very high tardy and absentee rate, as well as too large a number of students receiving detentions.

Then Jack Denny, assistant superintendent, took action to create a voluntary freshmen-year program that invited nearly 120 kids to come to school during the summer. With 27 students per teacher, it offered pupils the opportunity to excel. Eventually these 120 students became mentors to younger students and student test scores went through the roof. What began as an unfunded, and inexpensive, experiment is now a fully funded, mandatory program. Bryant said Ignoffo told her NCLB forced District 212 to "face the data and then think outside the box."

Innovative programs like this one, she said, will lower the dropout rates and inspire students to become future leaders. "At the same time we must involve our communities – just like Lake Villa Community Consolidated School District 41 is doing," Bryant said, pointing to the district for using data to improve performance and engage its community, as reported to her by Board President Ronald Vickers.

First, the board asked District 41 Superintendent John VanPelt to put together a district accountability program. Fifteen months later the program is in its second year, with the district using data to report to the public as well as to meet its own goals.

The district will host a "data fair" this spring to showcase school district data, including SAT scores for five schools, by putting it on the walls of the gymnasium of the middle school and setting set up tables staffed by administrators to discuss curriculum issues.

Using data to get the community involved is one part of the school improvement equation. Another crucial element is creating a cohesive board that is willing to partner with its superintendent to create increased student learning, she said.

"The Park Forest Chicago Heights School District 163 is doing just that, thanks to the leadership of their board and superintendent. With 80 percent children in poverty and 80 percent minority students, this district also has 80 percent of its students who meet or exceed expectations," she noted from Board President Virginia Ford.

When Superintendent Joyce Carmine joined the leadership team, the district had a $1 million shortfall, which meant major cuts were needed. The board's partnership with the new superintendent "made success happen" by using a core group of retired staff as consultants. Together they were able to get the district a Reading First grant.

"And, lo and behold, now they have three out of six schools as spotlight schools, with two more on the verge. Test scores, again, have dramatically improved," she said, and the district now sets goals for the superintendent, as well as goals for the district, so that the board can evaluate the superintendent and the board's performance based upon those goals.

Another a success story was cited at Forest Park School District 91, which she said faced a transitional challenge after hiring a new superintendent and getting three new board members added within months of each other. "The district overcame any concerns by setting a clear mission and purpose, with alignment across the district and across the community," Bryant said.

Board President Glenn Garlisch of District 91 reported how strongly the Forest Park board believed that everyone needed to be on the same page. The board and superintendent Louis Cavallo held a retreat, securing help from IASB Field Service Director Jeff Cohn, to focus on school board governance. The governance session "got the entire team off to a great start. Jeff incorporated the best-selling book Good To Great, which set the tone for the entire retreat."

Cohn also incorporated into the session the findings from the Lighthouse Project, a landmark Iowa-based research study that established the connection of good school board governance with increased student achievement. The result of the retreat was a stronger vision statement, plus a clearer mission and purpose.

Meanwhile, District 91 school leaders also chose to become more open to working with the press. And now the press is telling the good stories about the school board, superintendent, and the district's work, she said.

"They are making progress on closing the achievement gap, have gone to a 'no excuses' board, and have focused intensive instruction on grades one through three. Their goal is to have all kids reading at third-grade level by the end of third grade."

All Illinois school districts can achieve similar success, Bryant said: "You've got what it takes to get our students to the next level; to turn our 20th century classrooms into 21st century learning laboratories."

Three Illinois members win Distinguished Service Award

Three Illinois school board members were recently named to receive the National School Boards Association's Distinguished Service Award this year. The 2008 recipients from Illinois are: Tony Brunson, board president in Rich Township High School District 227, Bob Friend, vice president of the Lombard District 44 Board of Education; and Marie Slater, a board member in Wheaton-Warrenville CUSD 200, and IASB past president.

Illinois school board members are nominated for this honor through the Illinois Association of School Boards, and nominees must meet exacting criteria in order to be designated as an award winner. NSBA's National School Board Member Recognition Program was created to recognize "individual local school board members for demonstrating outstanding commitment to public education through leadership on their local board of education."

Each year, NSBA recognizes up to one percent of the nation's 95,000 local board members for this honor. Award criteria include: maintaining IASB Master School Board Member status for at least two consecutive years, attending three or more NSBA-sponsored events over the past four years, and providing proof of services rendered to public education at the state or national level within the past two years.

IASB staff members review submitted materials to ensure that all criteria are met. No one may receive the NSBA award more than once.

NSBA Executive Director Anne L. Bryant presented a pin and certificate to the Illinois winners at the recent 'Rally for Public Education,' held Feb. 27 in Lombard.

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