In education: the power of a shared vision — and of listening

Author: Berrick Abramson - December 22, 2017 - Updated: January 31, 2018

Berrick Abramson

Colorado’s recent elections have ushered in new school board members and, in some cases, new majorities. From Aurora and Douglas County this year to JeffCo before them, new boards are calling for new directions and priorities. These new leaders were, in part, elected because families felt ignored or that school boards were forging ahead in spite of — and not because of — their constituents’ concerns.

These results continue a recent trend toward electoral upheaval where local elections risk falling into the jarring cycle of political whiplash — with each side pressing the reset button every two or four years. This Washingtonization of our local politics neither serves children nor provides teachers, families, and schools alike the steady leadership they need to succeed.

The news boards and superintendents should set new courses for their districts and lead through listening.

In Aurora, Superintendent Rico Munn may face new challenges with the changes in the school board there and in Douglas County, the new board is kicking off a search for a permanent superintendent. When he was first hired to lead JeffCo schools, Dr. Jason Glass took a laudable first step of conducting a series of community meetings to hear from parents but still faces some bitter divides within the community. All of these leaders — and others across the state — are likely to face new challenges in the years ahead that they can better address by listening to and working with their communities.

District leaders would be well served to undertake a robust process to authentically engage their communities. Their goal should be to genuinely hear communities members’ priorities, concerns, and their hopes and aspirations. This approach will not only help leaders align their work with those values, but also to communicate how their own vision and leadership of the district can and will embrace the community’s values.

I’ve seen firsthand the power of such genuine outreach and the risks of half-hearted efforts. In one district in New Jersey, a new superintendent came in with what they believed were top priorities based on studying data and news reports. During a 100-day listening tour, he learned there were more pressing short-term concerns that the district was able to take immediate steps to address. He was also able to build a strategic plan that reflected the community’s own unique history, context and community priorities. In districts in Illinois and Connecticut I saw talented if strong-headed superintendents come into bitterly divided communities. Despite having plans and vision that led to significant gains for kids, their focus on outcomes over engagement and packing town-halls with supporters led to more turmoil and short tenures as superintendent.

These lessons, which can be adapted for Colorado districts, show how education leaders can achieve sustainable progress when they bring together diverse voices and collaborate on charting a path forward.

Districts should not view this kind of effort as a “one and done” proposition. This strategy requires ongoing community engagement.

Even in Colorado districts where voters did not press the reset button, this roadmap for engagement is a framework that can help all district leaders strengthen their relationships with their communities. It’s also something state officials should keep in mind.

Gov. John Hickenlooper signed an executive order earlier this year to revamp the Education Leadership Council, which is tasked with building a vision for the state’s education system for the 2020s and beyond. That’s important work and a big charge with the potential to set a bold path, but it also carries the risk of becoming yet another task-force that, with the best of intentions, finds itself gathered around a table admiring a problem and proposing solutions from afar. The Education Leadership Council should also engage with families to find that common ground around our shared values and hopes for our kids.

Berrick Abramson

Berrick Abramson

Berrick Abramson is senior policy director at Keystone Policy Center, a national nonprofit based in Colorado, where he leads the nonprofit’s education practice.