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Blog - Dallas, Texas

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Last week I was in Dallas, Texas for five days attending the annual conference of the NASSP (National Association of School Principals), the American counterpart to ASCL (the UK headteachers’ association, of which I am currently president). We have a reciprocal arrangement with them for our respective annual conferences, and I will be welcoming their president this year, Barbara-Jane Paris (who actually grew up not far from me in Essex before going to the USA) to Birmingham in March.

It was a great opportunity to step back for a few days from the maelstrom which UK edu-politics seems to be at the moment and see how things are done in a different context.  Every time I go to America I realize just how different American culture and assumptions are, including about schools and education.  It is easy to be fooled by commonalities of language into thinking that the USA is just a big version of the UK.  It really isn’t.

A few observations about Dallas first.  If you are of an age with me, you will remember Southfork, JR Ewing and that catchy theme tune as well as I do (if you’ve forgotten or are too young, try this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsBYBugvDek to remind you!).  Although Southfork is apparently still there, and is now a well-known wedding venue, the centre of Dallas does not look at all as I ‘remembered’ it from the series.  Many of the skyscrapers are looking a bit tatty, and there is a lot of brown-ish open space between them, with similarly brown-ish freeways on stilts weaving between them.  Absolutely every waiter, receptionist, cleaner, shop attendant as far as I could tell is Hispanic, and Spanish is as much (or even more) the language of the street as English.

The conference had a very distinctive feel to it, from my perspective.  One of the executive of NASSP performed the ‘Star-spangled Banner’ solo in a wonderful jazz style on the stage to open the conference, while the assembled delegates stood, hand on heart.  The banner itself of course was displayed at the front, along with the lone-star flag of Texas.  Some school children performed a poetic version of the pledge to the flag as well, echoing the start of day ritual in American schools.

At this point I am just wondering who from ASCL’s executive might be up for a rendition of a patriotic song at the start of our conference!

There was a variety of sessions through the conference, ranging from showcases of individual schools’ work (a great one on a school for Native Americans), to short ‘learning lab’ discussions, and larger break-out and plenary sessions.  One of the ‘learning lab’ sessions was on the pros and cons of arming teachers and principals in schools to make them safer.  Opinion was genuinely divided, and participants listened intently to arguments on both sides.  It certainly was not dismissed out of hand, as it would be in Europe.

The sessions had a decidedly non-political feel to them.  Education is, of course, largely a matter for individual states, and although there is a federal education department, its remit is limited.  ‘No child left behind’ is a rough equivalent to the last government’s ‘Every Child Matters’ programme at federal level, and states are encouraged to take on the agenda of ‘closing the gap’ through financial incentivisation from Washington, because the federal government has no power to direct states in education.  There is also a national move towards an entitlement curriculum, but not all states have signed up to it, and there is significant opposition to it, for fear of creeping centralization.

The gap left by politics was very much filled by sessions focusing on improving teacher performance.  The tone of these sessions, in terms of the way in which underperforming or ‘difficult’ teachers were described by speakers (verging on caricatures at times) left me feeling a little awkward from a British perspective.  While many heads might talk like this in private here, most of us would consider it poor form to describe our fellow professionals in quite such brutal ways in a large public session.

The speakers who were most appreciated offered highly polished and very interactive sessions which had the feel almost of an evangelical rally to them.  There was an awful lot of introducing yourself to a fellow delegate and ‘sharing’ something with them – the sort of approach which frequently backfires badly in UK conferences!

While there are certainly private schools in the US, including a large network of Catholic schools (I shared a table at one session with a deputy principal of a Catholic school in New Orleans which had been totally demolished by hurricane Katrina, and subsequently rebuilt), government funded schools are run by local school boards, who employ all teachers and other staff, and have very direct control over the curriculum offered.  There was very little general awareness of the systems and current issues in the UK, but those I spoke to were interested to hear.

The most extraordinary thing which happened was that I met, via an English colleague who was also there from another organization, the uncle and aunt of a student here at Bennett.  I had no idea that we had a student in school whose uncle was a principal of a school in West Virginia – ‘small world’ is an understatement!

NASSP itself is a large and sophisticated organization, although the way it operates is necessarily very different to ASCL because of the size of the country and the federal-state divide.  One of the activities they are engaged in is the award of prizes – the Oscars of the school leadership world.  I attended a dinner where a large number of these prizes were awarded for different aspects of leadership (‘principal of the year’ for digital leadership, turning around a failing school, and so on), and recipients were clearly moved and proud to get the awards.  Again, a very different culture and set of expectations.

It was a fantastic experience to be able to go and represent ASCL.  Despite all the differences, many of the day to day issues, in terms of managing students and staff, leading change and dealing with external authorities, are very similar to those dealt with by school leaders here.