The term infrastructure can mean many different things. In this context, I mean it to refer to all of the critical activities and supports necessary to undergird the core academic work that we must undertake. Operational infrastructure issues such as technology, resources, equity, data and analytical capacity, governance, human capital, organizational structure, safety and facilities must be addressed if we expect to be successful in our instructional pursuits.
The Knox County school system has been successful in beginning to integrate technology into our classrooms and to leverage technology to operate more efficiently. However, we still have a long way to go. In many instances, students are more proficient users of technology than the adults in our schools, and operational decisions are made with limited information because our systems are less than ideal. We must embrace both instructional and administrative technology and invest in technologies that will help our kids learn more, and our employees to operate more effectively.
Limited resources are an unfortunate fact of life in public education. While we will face difficult fiscal challenges in the coming months and years, we will seek to maximize the resources we do have and ensure that every dollar is used to effectively support student achievement. We will make difficult financial tradeoffs to support the learning of our young people, leverage private funding to assist our work, and recognize that some of the most needed and powerful reforms do not cost a cent.
Transparency, equity and alignment to mission are the principles that will guide our budget development and implementation. Transparency means that schools, stakeholders, and decision-makers will have appropriate, relevant, and understandable information about how we prioritize, budget, and spend our funds. We will strive to provide for an equitable distribution of resources based on a reasonable and clear rationale. Schools with greater need may receive additional resources to address those needs, but the methodology for distributing those resources will be manifest and public. Finally, all of our spending must be aligned to our educational mission: all of our resources must be carefully organized to drive instructional improvement and enable student success.
Throughout the fall, the issue of equity was raised time and again. Parents, teachers, students and other stakeholders continually emphasized the importance of distributing resources and programmatic assets equitably. The Annenberg Institute’s CORRE report cited perceptions of inequity as a major challenge for our school district. Interestingly, perceptions of disparity permeate in all sectors of our community: residents representing every geographic area, demographic group, and income level appear to believe that other schools consistently receive more resources than their own8. Our challenge and our responsibility will be to create structures that ensure equity in the allocation of resources, equity in the deployment of assets, and perhaps most importantly, equitable access to opportunity. Then we must also be clear and transparent enough about this equity to quell perceptions of unfair treatment.
Data and Analytical Capacity
The Knox County Schools has a long history of using data to inform instruction. Our efforts in developing capacity to analyze and adjust to student performance data have been impressive. But as the technology changes, new opportunities to utilize data effectively are emerging constantly. As a school district our future success will be dependent on our ability to generate, access, analyze and act on data. An expanded and comprehensive system of formative assessments, for example, will provide significant and timely information on student learning at all levels of our organization.
We are currently in the development stage of a data “warehouse” that will enhance our capabilities, but we must also be attentive to technology needs, training, developing more sophisticated analytical capacity, and creating and reinforcing a culture that values the frequent use of student outcome information.
For our children to be successful, we must have a highly functional school system, and highly functional governance. The Board of Education and the Superintendent must work collaboratively to build a culture in our school district that focuses singularly on excellence for all children. In all of our work, the interests of our children must come first. Their interests must supersede politics, adult convenience, competition for influence and control, and all personal differences. Ultimately, any distraction from our core educational mission will be problematic; one of our own making would be simply unacceptable.
Our relationships with other governing bodies, government executives and entities must continue to be characterized by collaboration and not conflict. The Board of Education and the Superintendent will need to work together with mutual respect, cooperation and a clear delineation of authority and responsibility. The line between setting policy and managing the operation of the school district will have to be clearly defined, and vigilantly respected. Together we will set a course that will enable success for all our students.
As mentioned frequently above, our strength is in our people. Our future is also dependent upon our continuing to identify, hire, develop and appropriately manage and support high quality talent in all areas of our organization. A focus on Human Capital was one of five recommendations made by the Annenberg Institute’s CORRE report, and as it significantly affects everything else we do, it will be one of my top priorities.
Not only should resources be aligned to our educational mission, but our organizational structure must be as well. This spring, I will announce a modified organizational structure to better support the important work that we must undertake in the Knox County Schools.
A safe and healthy learning environment is an important priority in its own right, but even more critical when considering that it is also a vital pre-requisite to learning. We will continue to make student safety and school security an important priority in all that we do.
Our physical structures should appropriately support the learning that occurs within them. Our community has invested significantly in capital assets in the recent past, and there is much to take pride in. Our success in maintenance and cleanliness creates an attractive and inviting learning environment in our schools.
Beautiful facilities at Hardin Valley Academy, Cedar Bluff Elementary, Gibbs Elementary, Powell Middle School and Holston Middle, for example, showcase how thoughtful design, construction and renovation can support instructional priorities. These are not just examples of beautiful buildings, they are brilliantly functional schools. The innovation and care that we have taken with our school facilities both in construction and maintenance should continue, despite extreme short-term fiscal challenges.
Throughout our community former schools lay fallow, slowly decaying. This is unfortunate and an unexploited opportunity. As a community, I believe we should take a careful look at our complete building stock and dream of what unused facilities could represent for our school system, our neighborhoods, and our children. Reclamation may not be an option for some of these buildings, but slow painful disintegration and blight should not be either.