I recently listened to Mark Edwards, the remarkable superintendent of the Mooresville Graded School District in Iredell County, explain how he had propelled his sleepy district to be one of the hottest showcases for high-quality K-12 education in America.
His talk focused on something he called digital conversion, the most obvious part of which is that every student in the district has a laptop. Indeed, the casual observer might draw the conclusion that by simply giving every student a computer and hooking him up to the Internet, a district can improve student achievement over night
However, Edwards message made clear that the visible part of the process, the laptop, really played only a secondary role in the strategy at the heart of his success. He spent most of his time talking about how he had worked hard to establish a culture of caring at his schools, as well as a set of high expectations. In fact, in his new book, Every Child, Every Day, which we all received during the talk, his chapter on the culture of caring precedes his chapter on digital resources and infrastructure.
The success of Edwards and Mooresville offers several lessons to anyone interested in improving schools. The first, and most obvious, is that merely handing children a computer without a game plan for how to use it effectively is not going to move the needle on student achievement very far.
The second, and more powerful lesson, has to do with the culture of caring and high expectations. They are fundamental to a successful school, but they are too frequently ignored in districts preoccupied with test scores or despairing about how little they can expect from low income or minority children.
Which gets me to the real lesson of Mooresville. You cannot mandate a culture of caring or high expectations from Washington or Raleigh. They are things that have to be embraced wholeheartedly by the teachers and administrators on the ground. Mere box-checking compliance is not a substitute for a supportive and enthusiastic attitude.
Nonetheless, when we talk about school reform these days, we regularly look for our fix to the federal or state government. There has to be a law, somehow, that can turn things around. In fact, there rarely is.
Of course, there are things that the federal government and the states can do, like appropriate more or less money, or mandate the length of the school year, that will have an effect on schools and learning. But if you look at all 115 districts in North Carolina, there are large variations among them notwithstanding they all operate under the same rules. Even if one breaks down the 115 so that you simply compare those with comparable numbers of poor or minority kids, the variations remain.
And that brings me to the final lesson to be learned from Mooresville. Education experts for the past 30 years have been talking about how the focus of K-12 education policy has shifted from school boards to the states and federal government. However, if we are talking about policies that really count when it comes to student achievement, nothing has shifted at all.
Great superintendents, principals and teachers are still what are going to make the biggest difference in your childs life. Activists and reformers may still need to visit Washington or Raleigh on occasion, but the real action remains at your local school board meeting.
Lest someone think Im opposed to a federal role in education, Im not. When it comes to equity, equal opportunity and research, the federal government has a role to play. But education is a service business. Its core is the people who provide that service. Inanimate objects like computers can help but not substitute for them. If we care about improving schools, we need to focus our attention on the people and places that really count the most.
Harold Kwalwasser of Washington is an education consultant and a former general counsel of the Los Angeles Unified School District. In his recent book, Renewal, he studied 40 high-performing districts including Watauga and Iredell-Statesville in North Carolina.