Wednesday I had the privilege of chatting with Superintendent Dr. Wiegand and Board President Sue Grey, in two different venues. On both occasions my goal was simply to learn; now my challenge is clearly communicating what I learned.
I met with Dr. Wiegand at the Mellon Center. Aside from the construction and relatively unmarked temporary entrance, the mood inside the building was obviously somber. I had set up an appointment with Dr. Wiegand prior to the events on Tuesday, and told her that if she was not in a mood to talk about her thesis, I totally understood. But we decided to move forward with our plans.
In regards to her research and findings, she confirmed that, in a oversimplified nutshell kind of way, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. I asked her about what provided the impetus for the topic in the first place, and Dr. Wiegand relayed a bit of what was on her mind at the time, that she was concerned about the academic performance of certain groups and how she had observed that academic teams seemed to have a positive effect. On top of that, she also noticed how hard it is to push change through at times. So she wanted to study the process of “reform” and try to find specific obstacles.
Much of our conversation bled into her Dr. Marzano book study as well. Dr. Marzano talks about the difference between first-order change (small, incremental, easy-to-swallow changss) vs second-order changes (the big stuff, paradigm shifts, turn diagrams on their heads). We talked about how leadership (both in general and specifically with Unit 4 and Unit 312 of her research) plays a big role in setting the tone, providing vision and even sometimes creating an atmosphere in which change is more difficult. Dr. Wiegand is a big believer in and advocate of strong literacy; she has made this clear since she took up the position earlier this year. One of the reasons is that how a child performs in third grade has shown to have a high correlation with (fancy talk for saying “likely to”) future standing in society. For example, a poor level of reading at third grade could mean, statistically, the child as an adult might exhibit maladaptive behavior. In general, we want children to grow up to have a high degree of “social capital”, and if we can proactively put children on the right path, then let’s do it! 🙂 So Dr. Wiegand is expending a lot of energy in various directions trying to essay that goal (having all children reading at or above grade level by third grade).
I mentioned that sometimes it seems like (from my limited perspective) there are sparks between the Teacher’s Union and the Board, in that the Union is obviously looking to the best interests of the teachers. I learned that recently there were some really good conversations between the CFT and the District and that some future discussions are being planned (and programs?) to bring these two groups to a common page. I was excited to hear about this. The ice was broken with the Marzano book study (and in fact, if I remember what Judy said correctly, that first “aha” discussion opened up the stage for the book study with building level staff).
Dr. Wiegand also mentioned an “education summit” and the talks they are having with the Chamber of Commerce. (I heard that sigh, Pattsi.) I reminded Dr. Wiegand of the Summit in Springfield back in February and passed along Shelly Heideman’s contact information. The more I talked with Dr. Wiegand, the more aware I become of all the little things happening, little things that accumulate and become big things, most of which we probably have no idea is going on. For me, this was very exciting! As I take a step back, I again observe that much of the media pounces on “big ticket” items like when someone dies or there is a lot of controversy. What about when there is good news? Where are the stories about the book study, the solid financial ground that Gene left us with, the efforts to focus on literacy?
We only had 30 minutes, but those 30 minutes were very inspiring. I had a number of other questions for Dr. Wiegand, and I sent her a follow-up email:
- In your research work, you were working off the 100ft perspective of a high school principal; much of what you wrote speaks to the influence of district leadership (as well as building leadership). Now that you are in a district leadership position (the top, none the less *grin*), what sort of reform do you see as non-negotiable (borrowing terminology from Dr. Marzano)? Likewise, what efforts do you see as important and good, but not necessarily critical?
- The idea of reform can be readily applied to the decision about the future of Unit 4 high schools (aka, the “high school options”). I firmly believe this discussion involves much more than the mere placement of a single high school – I believe it will touch on curriculum, long-term strategic planning, how middle schools transition to upper grade levels (whether it be via a Prep school or not) and even how Unit 4 deploys elementary schools (ie, split between quasi-neighborhood schools and magnet/semi-charter schools like Greg Novak’s grand plan). This will be huge reform. Again borrowing from Dr. Marzano, this is second-order change stuff. It is going to be hard to get the community in the right frame of mind for the proper prerequisite conversations. What is your plan of attack?
- Finally, we never did touch on the purpose of education in the first place. I have talked to Dr. Lynda Vaughn with the ISBE, Jane Quinlan with the ROE, Board Members, parents, teachers, and even my own little girl (“to learn how to have fun and learn how to learn” she said). I have different perspectives from everyone. I would love to know what you think. The mission statement of Unit 4 (from the 1996 Strategic Planning group) talks about guiding children and preparing them in many different ways. Given all your experience to date, what would you say the purpose of education is?
Later in the day, I had an opportunity to listen in as Sue Grey and Pattsi talked about planning and collaboration at Houlihans. I didn’t say much and I should have written more. 🙂 I would despise myself if I misstate anything, so please feel free to correct me.
One of the amazing things, and both ladies acknowledged the same, is that partisanship goes out the window when we focus on common denominators like children and education. There might be differences of opinion on minor points, but by and large, I witnessed an agreement that there are issues and the desire to do something about it. Issues like a lack of partnership and collaboration between the school district (rather, school districts) and various bodies in town (I’ll not repeat any names). Pattsi mentioned the lack of planning (ie, like urban planning, sprawl, etc) and I believe Sue recognized this. Sue also brought up the education summit and talks with the Chamber of Commerce and Pattsi finally got to ask “Why?”. 🙂 It was my perception, based on what was said, that perhaps there were sparks between the Chamber and the District, and so they put their heads together and tried to figure out a way to work together instead of against each other. From the grasshopper’s point of view, this seemed very wise and mature.
Sue also gave us a bit of background on Gene. I am not going to relay everything she said, but it sounds like Gene really got the short end of the stick in the previous administration. It is amazing to think of where we were and where we are today, in terms of finances. I only hope that the next person is able to pick up where Gene left off and continue to guide the District along the straight and narrow path.
They both also chatted about the high school location; Pattsi was able to voice her opinion about the Neil and Bradly idea, and Sue listened and compared it to Imani’s Great Campus. Sue also mentioned that Holly Nelson will be presenting at the June 11th Board Meeting. If I had been in the right frame of mind, I should have asked about the Public Engagement Firm. I am kicking myself, but I’ll follow up with email. I know the Board has interviewed several firms already. But that’s about it.
Again, I went away from this exchange having been encouraged and uplifted about all the many small things going on. Yes, we have a ton of work to do, and yes, things are not perfect. But there are many good things also. For me, I have to find balance – being strengthened by that which is good, pressing on to improve everything else.