As Pixar’s Academy Award-winning director Brad Bird puts it, organizations that spread and sustain excellence are infused with a “relentless restlessness”—that often uncomfortable urge for constant innovation, driven by the nagging feeling that things are never quite good enough.
I had the wonderful opportunity to work with West Vancouver Schools and Superintendent Chris Kennedy this past week, and share my learning on “The Innovator’s Mindset” with some of the admin team as well as several educators. I have always enjoyed my conversations with Chris because we do not always agree on things, but we both have the focus on doing what is best for kids, and we push each other on this basis. I truly believe this makes us both better but neither of us takes it personal as we know we are challenging ideas, not the person. To be able to have people that you can openly disagree with and become “critical friends”, really can take your own learning to the next level. I know that I have grown tremendously from my interactions with Chris because of this connection.
As we walked over to work with his admin team, I asked Chris what made his district so strong. The first word he said was “culture”. We talked more about it, but what I saw reinforced that notion. Although West Vancouver Schools has an amazing reputation, many of the educators that I connected with weren’t focusing on what they have done, but what they want to do moving forward. This is not to say that they weren’t proud of their work, but with every single pat on their own back, they seemingly used that same hand to push themselves forward further. They constantly ask questions to move forward and become better for their students, while they could easily be satisfied with what they have done.
School success much more than a number
Some readers may have seen a recent front page article in the North Shore News about the annual Fraser Institute Elementary Report Card School Rankings, released in early May. Ecole Cedardale, one of our two French Immersion schools, was the only public school in the province to score top marks. While we are pleased with the result, the rankings provide only a small sliver of information about what our community values in schools.
The Fraser Institute has been compiling data from Grade 4 and Grade 7 Foundation Skills Assessment to produce reports on student achievement, in an effort to help parents decide which schools perform best academically. They produce a similar report for high schools, based on the previous year’s average examination results in Grade 10, 11 and 12 courses that include a mandatory provincial exam.
These reports reflect an old view of education: that we should compare schools and compete with one another. Our philosophy and success is based on a new model – that our schools are all connected, and should work together to improve. Collaboration — within districts, among districts and around the globe — is the key to building a stronger education system. Student learning is not about labeling winners and losers.
We appreciate the dilemma that a parent new to education — or new to a region — may be facing when they choose a school for their child, and know that it’s tempting to rely on a number in a complex world with so many choices. But educators know that using test scores to measure school performance is deeply flawed. It may provide some interesting insight at the student level, but beyond that, the measures tell us very little. It is just silly, for example, to look at one year’s scores and make broad generalizations about a school’s achievement. Cohorts of students are different each year – what is interesting to me is individual students’ progress over time.
If there was one piece of valuable information I might glean from the data, it is the small gap between our highest and lowest performing schools. While individual school performance in the West Vancouver School District goes up and down year over year, the range in results in our district is the narrowest in Metro Vancouver. This year, for example, there is only a 2.4 point gap between the highest and lowest test scores. Given the consistency in data between our schools, and over time, the message that emerges is that all West Vancouver School District schools are consistently strong achieving schools on tests in core skill areas.
So how does this link to selecting a school? The best choice for most families is the neighbourhood school. That is the choice my wife and I have made for our four kids. We know that the community connections and friends in the neighbourhood are good reasons to make a local school choice. That said, I know there is increasing choice for families. As you look at schools – whether for elementary or high school, please don’t decide based on a test score.
Instead, we ask parents to visit our schools, meet with teachers, administrators and students, learn about the school’s unique programs and opportunities, and make a decision based on the right fit for their child. In West Vancouver, we offer a broad range of programs, and with strong academic performance well in hand from one end of the district to the other, we successfully focus on providing a broad range of educational and programming options that provide a richly woven learning experience for every child.
While others could have easily said, “look at our results”, Chris actually challenged them. But what I saw this day is that it is not only Chris; this is the culture. They know that the story of a child or a school cannot be told by a number, and that these numbers often represent more than what is done in school, but also the community where the schools are located, which the rankings have not historically taken into account. There are factors that these same schools
Relentless restlessness. The constant need to get better.
In a world that constantly moves forward, if we choose to stand still, we will eventually fall behind.
The culture and the educators that I was able to connect with showed me that “great” is never quite good enough. Although I only had a brief glimpse, the pursuit to constantly become better for their kids was the culture that was embraced throughout the organization.