AASA School Solutions

How Do We Attain the Real ‘New Normal’?

by SUHAIL A. FAROOQUI

When Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last fall addressed the American Enterprise Institute, he famously challenged education leaders to embrace “the new normal,” which he summed up as “the challenge of doing more with less.” Educators wonder what is “new” about the idea of doing more with less. After all, the recent history of public school administration can be summed up by that very phrase.

FarooquiSuhail Farooqui

Yet the secretary is on to something, and his arguments for a “new normal” that eliminates waste and introduces creative ways to do more of what works deserve consideration. Duncan quoted author Rick Hess, who argued in his book Stretching the School Dollar that “districts often make cuts that are more harmful than helpful.” For instance, administrators may end up cutting music or instructional days rather than closing an underenrolled school. I hope the secretary knows his real challenge isn’t to convince superintendents about the “new normal” because they are already on board with the idea of creative and meaningful innovation.

What concerns administrators everywhere, however, is the appalling lack of civic capacity in our communities to embrace and cope with the changes the secretary talks about. The present crisis is rooted as much in a deficit of trust capital as it is in a shortage of fiscal capital.

Most Americans do not understand the role of school administrators, who are bombarded with critical blogs and tweets posted by writers who show scant respect for facts. How else do we explain the prevailing myth in nearly every district that administrative costs are too high? The resulting landscape of mistrust is responsible for a large number of superintendents leaving the profession or seeking earlier retirement.

In the years before the Internet, debate concerning our schools was confined to a few manageable forums — school board meetings, town hall gatherings and the local newspaper’s letters page. There was a limit to how much mischief someone could cause. That has changed with the advent of social media. Blogs, tweets and other online broadcasting tools offer everyone an equal opportunity to promote his or her ideas. A lack of accountability means that naysayers who resist change of the sort that Duncan describes as necessary may speak so vociferously on the web that their few voices sound like a majority and overshadow the true opinions of a neutral or supportive, but silent, majority.

My firm, K12 Insight, an AASA School Solutions partner, works with hundreds of school districts to ensure administrators do not spend an inordinate amount of their time wrestling with these vocal minorities. To be fair, we believe every individual and group — whether loud or not — deserves to be treated with respect. What is unfair, though, is if a small group blocks every innovation and transformation in a district.

If you’re an administrator, you know this goes on all too often. If you’ve tried to consolidate schools, close underenrolled or underperforming schools, or revise the bus routes in your district, you likely found change nearly impossible because of the lack of civic capacity and trust capital.

All too often, we see an “us vs. them” scenario with the administration being portrayed as the enemy. Overcoming this mindset will require educators to fundamentally rethink how they nurture relationships and engagement with the largely silent majority in their districts. Our work has been to help school districts engage this majority using a systemic and systematic approach to engagement building between the district and the community, teachers and staff, and even students.

By systemic, we mean the activity of building engagement needs to be embraced with the same level of planning and commitment as other non-instructional activities. Without that, an ad hoc and reactionary approach does more harm than good. Trust capital and civic capacity are useful at all times, but in difficult times they become indispensable. By nurturing them in a systematic way, school leaders will find all challenges a bit easier. The essential transformation that is the new normal is that public schools anchor engagement with their stakeholders by cementing this activity into the very culture of everything they do.

Suhail Farooqui is the CEO of K12 Insight in Herndon, Va. E-mail: sfarooqui@k12insight.com

AASA School Solutions Partners
Twelve firms make up the AASA School Solutions Center. NJPA is a premier partner.

NATIONAL JOINT POWERS ALLIANCE,® municipal contracting with vendors

HMS, dependent health-care eligibility audits

HOPE FOUNDATION, professional development for leadership teams

K12 INSIGHT, survey tool

MEDEXPERT, medical issues management services

NATIONAL STUDENT CLEARINGHOUSE, affordable student outcome reporting

ORGANIZATIONAL HEALTH, organizational audits of human capital

PAY4SCHOOLSTUFFONLINE, online payment processing

PFM-FINANCIAL SERVICES, procurement card program for schools

POWERIT, cost-saving web technology solutions

PROPELLSHOPS, no-cost operation for school fundraising

TUTOR.COM, online tutoring