A Focus on Schooling Not Schools

Teenage girl lying on bed using a laptop

Every summer the Connections Education School Leadership Team invites leaders from the schools we manage to spend a week in Baltimore at our Leadership Retreat. This year’s group included principals, assistant principals, and heads of counseling and special education from 30 schools – together there were over 200 participants.

It is always an energizing event. Many people think that educators take off over the summer, but that’s far from the truth. This is particularly apparent at Connections Academy virtual schools, where constant year-over-year growth makes summer a very busy time. The summer is when the real planning, thinking, and problem solving gets done. When schools are in session there is little time to plan and strategize amidst the rapid fire flow of decisions and issues.

As in previous years, I was struck by the engagement and dedication of the educators, traveling to a hot and humid Baltimore in the middle of the summer to look back at the previous year, figure out what worked, what didn’t, and to prepare for the upcoming school year with like-minded colleagues. A clear and common goal was evident: make sure the upcoming year is better than the last – a true commitment to continuous improvement.

There was, however, a particular aspect of the meeting that stood out. Throughout the presentations, break-out sessions, and many of the informal conversations I had the opportunity to sit in on, there was a single-minded and exclusive focus on improving academic outcomes for students. This should and must be the primary focus of all schools, yet there are so many other priorities that naturally intrude into the mindshare of educators in traditional schools. This is not a criticism, as these educators must consider a multitude of other things such as classroom management, discipline, campus security and safety, bus schedules, air-conditioning, furniture, classroom size, custodial services, graffiti, food services, lunch and recess supervision. The list goes on and on.

At the Connections leadership retreat every conversation and every meeting topic came back to aspects of the program that improve student learning. The teams spent significant time on their annual School Improvement Plans, analyzing data from the past school year, looking for areas that need additional attention and improvement. They developed concrete action plans to address these issues and set measurable targets to determine if and when progress is being made. There was an emphasis on student and family engagement, again with the aim of improving student outcomes. There were many other interesting and important topics and presentations around subjects such as staff retention, state testing, professional development, improving in math instruction, special education, dual enrollment (college and high school), accountability frameworks, master learning, credit recovery, English language learning, Response to Intervention, and a wide range of sessions on using data.

This focus on student learning contrasts to an event that occurred during my tenure as a senior administrator in a large, traditional school district. It was February and the city was hit by a huge snow storm. I recall three days of literally every senior administrator in the system working to get the schools back up and running. The major issue was parking for teachers. Most of the students could walk to school after the first day, but teachers often drove from other towns and the suburbs. They needed parking and there was just too much snow to clear. It was a great example of collaboration, energy, and problem solving at the most senior levels of the organization. And eventually the parking lots were cleared and schools were reopened. Sadly, I do not recall a similar focus and energy around the district’s abysmal graduation rate or poor test scores. I guess it is human nature to fixate on what is immediate and concrete (or asphalt, in the case of the parking lot).

There is plenty of discussion and debate about the effectiveness of virtual school (a topic for another day). But there is a noticeable lack of discussion about the impact of an educational model that enables educators to truly focus on schooling rather than schools. As demonstrated so vividly last week, school leaders from Connections Education are having these discussions. We welcome the opportunity to talk to you.

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About the Author
Steven Guttentag

Steven Guttentag

Steven Guttentag is president and co-founder of Connections Education. He began his career as a classroom teacher and has spent the last 20 years designing and deploying technology solutions to improve K–12 education.

Following his classroom experience, Guttentag held several senior school district administrative positions, with responsibilities in the areas of technology, facilities, special education, policy analysis, labor relations, budgeting, restructuring, and grants management.

A co-founder of Connections Education, he helped develop the company’s institutional business, Connections Learning by Pearson, the Nexus Academy blended learning schools, and the global private school, International Connections Academy. More recently he worked with Pearson, creating plans to operate schools around the globe.