MSBA 2012 Highlights

I am attending the Missouri School Board Association’s annual conference and I am a bit overwhelmed by the volume of quality information being presented. I have been attending this conference as an exhibitor, presenter or participant since the mid 1990’s, and the last couple of years have been the most relevant that I have experienced. I will try to hit the highlights and my initial assimilation of the information. So I do not misrepresent any of the presenters, I will just run through what I have learned and not try to identify specific sessions. You can go to for more information and the specific presentations.

It was refreshing to hear presenters speak candidly about the state of education in Missouri. Too often we simply have a mutual admiration society at these events and I really like looking at the difficult challenges in front of us without the sugar coating. We have fallen down the list in the world in our quality of education. It is clear and we need to accept it. That appears to be happening in Missouri at the highest levels.

I have seen the “Did You Know” videos in the past, the 2012 version is worth watching. A bit too fear-driven for me but still includes some good information. You can see it here.

Some interesting information about the new core academic standards was presented. The Lexile reading target for Missouri grade levels is going up by roughly 20% across the board. This effort to raise the bar on reading level is backed up by the reading comprehension required for even entry level jobs in the workplace. You can read more about it at DESE’s site.

It will be good to see our students focused on rigorous conversations centered on a common text. The ability to read something, understand the content and context, and then debate and discuss it, becomes the focus of 80% of a high school students reading requirement. All of the employers can now rejoice, we might be graduating critical thinkers like we have not seen in America since the 1950’s.

This means that creative expression writing will drop to 20% of their time. In my opinion this is long overdue. we need to give them a love of writing and literature but also the trained skill to write a report or a proposal. Teaching strategies need to focus more on the content of the text and less on the connection to self (experiences, feelings, et al).

I was very excited to hear that we will be teaching algebraic thinking starting in kindergarten. Our kids are capable of this, it is high time we started giving them the chance to excel. We will be focusing on a narrower math curriculum which means we will be able to go deeper into core study areas. Currently, we reteach the same concept across multiple grade levels. By focusing we can stop teaching the same thing multiple times, focus on broad comprehension and mastery and move on. Make math the progression it should be.

I also heard a very interesting analogy that boils down this shift nicely for me. Currently when we teach fractions we focus on visualization through pie pieces. While this is handy in some contexts it does NOT build on math foundations that are relevant. In algebra fractions are thought of in terms of a line, not a pie. We need to teach them in that way so the foundational concepts exist for movement into higher level math. The focus is on starting this at an early age. We need to teach real math for real life and career.

We will also be focusing on connecting meaning to procedures in math. Mathematical fluency is important in technical careers. This does not just involve mathematical operations but when to use tools. Understanding when calculating something is faster in your head than with a calculator is a very valuable skill to learn. Those of us in technical careers use that skill literally every day.

I have also been struck by the reliance our education system puts on grants to support innovation. I want to challenge our board and boards around the state to specifically fund innovative ideas knowing that some will fail. We should not just implement those that achieve “free” or matched money to be tried. This is simply silly.

We still have the upper hand internationally. Both China and India have a very clinical and “hive” approach to education. Kids are put into silos where they can go deeply into a subject while neglecting all else. This is not truly innovation and is the reason Apple and Google are American companies. Our power is in our ability to innovate as groups. To transcend a particular area because of our varied experiences. To innovate means to lead, and it is possible for us to do it again soon.

An FBI agent came to speak to us about predators, technology and schools. A couple of key points I walked away with, predators are very smart, and they are ruthless. This is not a crime of opportunity but premeditated and part of a damaged mind’s reaction to the world. We saw video interviews with convicted predators and victims discussing the mindset that led to the tragedy. These are crimes largely committed by high functioning sociopaths and need our intelligent effort to thwart them. Many resources are available at

At Affton we launched into a continuous improvement cycle starting two years ago. This is based on the Baldridge Criteria ( that is a proven methodology to make any organization effective. We are starting to see gains across our district but it will take years to fully implement the vision. Some of the principles I have learned thus far:

1. Build a culture that persists, eliminates fear, and uses data like a flashlight rather than a hammer.
2. Data should drive improvement rather than control it.
3. Build a system the right way. From core values up instead of results down.
4. A real focus in shifting control of education back to the student and their family. Student-centered excellence
5. Drivers: Leadership, Customer Focus, Strategic Planning
6. As we shift involvement to the family, their expectations of their student will naturally rise.
7. Weakest part of education is the community feedback. The connection between the classroom and the home needs constant attention.
8. A system is defensible, random acts of excellence are not. Whatever we do needs to be understood to a level it can be articulated clearly.
9. Until you implement your plan you have done nothing. Planning is not execution.
10. Boards need to work with data at the right level, not get lost in the weeds.

Service learning was a concept discussed or referenced in several presentations. Service Learning is when groups of students take on community projects and complete them. The concept is much like the Eagle Project in Boy Scouts. There are so many positives for the student: service mindset, project management, administration, permit acquisition, project drawings. Powerful life skills to teach a student. As I have indicated in other articles, I really love hands-on instructional opportunities. In my experience the concepts and ideas learned by doing have a lasting effect–far longer than lecture style instruction.

One of the most impressive presentations I saw at the conference was put on by the Joplin School District discussing their Bright Futures program. This program has thousands of volunteers meeting real needs among their students. They realized a number of years ago that like every school district a percentage of their students were living in situations where every day was a bad day. Homelessness, hunger, clothing, and social stresses were holding kids back. They turned to their community for help in targeting those needs–changing the dynamic by giving students a chance to excel and change their future.

They invited local business leaders, pastors, and decision makers to a breakfast to talk about the needs. 47 of 150 leaders wanted to get deeply involved. Their community leaders led the research initiative to figure out what was needed. Getting the community to take ownership in the kids’ future was a big win for them. There are skills and resources we know nothing about that we can tap into in our districts that will change lives. Immense needs have been met through the program, fast response has become the norm. They use Facebook extensively and often will post a need and receive an immediate response that the need will be covered.

There are many paths to improving achievement, simply focusing on academics has the side benefit of natural gains in performance. No Child Left Behind (NCLB), while it had horrible holes, was a catalyst for change in education. Just doing anything that engaged kids helped many school districts to make significant growth and progress. The big challenge will be to put systems in place that will yield real, lasting results. I hope we do not rest until 80% of our kids are proficient in all academic areas, anything less seems to be selling our children short. MSBA 2012 was an outstanding conference and I learned a great deal that reinforced my beliefs in many areas, and gave me much to think about.


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