At the March 21 Humble ISD board meeting, Dr. Elizabeth Fagen presented the Portrait of an Humble ISD Graduate effort she began last August shortly after assuming the superintendent role on July 5.
The district gave a lengthy roll-out of the effort at the board meeting, with several teachers, students and parents speaking at the podium and praising it.
HHS International Baccalaureate senior Zoe Whitehead said, “I am so thankful to have been part of the Dream Team. At the first meeting, the facilitator [Ken Kay] noted there was a student at each table, and said our opinions are the most important. In that moment, I felt we made a difference. I experience on a daily basis what we discussed in Dream Team, and am excited the district is expanding its educational outlook.”
Over 80 educators, administrators, parents and community members and 12 students served on the team, which also had nine representatives from Humble ISD’s 11 Title 1 schools. The opportunity to serve was announced at various district meetings and to groups like Leadership Lake Houston.
Who conceived the Dream Team?
Fagen’s Dream Team idea emerged from board and administrative team discussions to “develop a comprehensive, systematic plan inspired by our community’s vision.” Fagen commented that the idea had received enthusiastic support at several principal, parent and student meetings.
What did the team accomplish?
The end product of this effort was a statement of community expectations for student educational experiences for the 21st century called Portrait of a Graduate. The Dream Team first met in November 2016 to discuss desired competencies above and beyond basic academic expectations. The second half-day meeting in January focused on reaching a consensus on the competencies. Later in January, the community was invited to comment via an online survey about the six draft competencies; the survey was powered by Thoughtexchange, a software package that cost $61,500. The survey posed two questions:
As we consider the 21st century competencies that our children will need to have, what are your thoughts about the proposed skills?
Are there any other important competencies we should consider for our students to develop to meet the needs of the 21st century?
For question 1, the community ranked critical thinking and communication skills highest, and core academic skills lowest. For question 2, life skills such as knowing how to interview and how to do your taxes ranked highest, followed by being a global citizen, with critical thinking and organizational skills ranked lowest. Many on social media complimented the district for conducting the survey, in which 1,359 people contributed 2,271 comments. Others felt the competencies fell short as a statement of community expectations. The final meeting on Feb. 8 involved a brief review of additional input to finalize the “portrait” concept, and was largely focused on creation of an artistic logo as a visual representation of the “portrait.”
What did participants think?
Martina Lemond Dixon, current Trustee Position 5 candidate and Education Foundation board member, was chosen to serve on the Dream Team and was asked if she could recommend other participants. One of her two recommendations was chosen.
Dixon said, “The overall effort was quite productive. It was great to see so many viewpoints and shared information from a group of concerned Humble ISD community members.” But Dixon also noted that she was unsure how effective the community survey input was “since statistically, the number of respondents was not a large enough sample to get a true representation of the stakeholders.”
Creekwood Middle School parent Cynthia Cantrell was chosen by the principal to serve on the Dream Team. Cantrell described it as a “very interesting process,” with the most valuable part being the participation of the “amazing, smart and intuitive” high school students.
Who led the effort?
Fagen hired Ken Kay, CEO of the Tucson-based organization EdLeader21, as facilitator for the Dream Team effort, at a cost of $24, 999 ($8,333 per session or $2,000 per hour); single-item purchases costing above $25,000 require visibility in the board meeting agenda for board approval. Fagen hired Kay for his “unique experience” and profile as a “national expert on Portrait of a Graduate.” Fagen stated that she did not participate in the effort to ensure an unbiased community vision.
EdLeader21 is a national network of school and district leaders focused on integrating the 4Cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity) into education. The company goal is to have 1,000 districts create and adopt a Profile of a Graduate by the end of 2019. Fagen is a strong proponent of the philosophy, as evidenced by an EdLeader21 website video testimonial made while serving as Douglas County, Colorado School District (DCSD) superintendent: “Superintendents are pulled in many different directions, so it is difficult sometimes to sign on for one more thing, but when the opportunity presented itself for me to be a part of EdLeader21, I knew that this had to be a priority, that this had to be something I would participate in.” Fagen has presented alongside Kay and other EdLeader21 top management, representing the DCSD “profile” at several education conferences.
Kay was described by various participants as “experienced and skilled at leading the group,” “scripted,” and “definitely pushed an agenda” to force a “pre-determined outcome.” One said, “The high schooler and an educator at my table complained that he wasn’t listening to us.”
In the district’s promotional video, Kay says “the group definitely accomplished what it set out to accomplish, which is a core set of six competencies unique to Humble ISD”:
Good communication skills
Creativity and innovation
The draft and final competencies were not altogether different. Despite EdLeader21’s statement that competencies and community involvement can’t be “cookie cutter” and must be unique, many other EdLeader21 schools do have very similar competencies although their logos are quite diverse (see profileofagraduate.org/topics/profile-of-a-graduate-example). Nearby New Caney ISD developed their seven-competency “portrait” called REALITY as a pre-K through graduation commitment to excellence; it includes many of the same concepts as Humble ISD as well as academic preparedness, and was developed through discussions at the district level and with input from parents, teachers and students, without the consultant price tag of $25,000. In 2003, Humble ISD developed a very similar Profile of the Humble ISD Graduate that embodied nearly identical traits, such as self-directed learning, effective communicators, responsible citizens, collaboration, critical thinking, and adaptive problem-solving.
Criticism of the effort?
Two participants who wish to remain anonymous were very critical of the entire effort. First, they complained that not every school was represented, and that the district extended Dream Team invitations to the typical people: “golden administrators, favorite teachers, popular kids, and the same recycled leaders from the chamber crowd who are at every event in town.” Another said “it was a bigger version of the District of Innovation team.” One said regarding the exercise, “most of what we came up with were common sense and things we already knew, like communication and leadership.” One participant referred to Kay as a “snake oil salesman; when he was challenged that our results were identical to other districts he had worked with, he became very offended. When people were not in agreement with what he (Kay) was saying, he shot them down fast. A student made a comment, and (Kay) said ‘No! Let’s move on!' By the last day, everyone in my group felt that the whole thing had been a waste of time. So we’re Stepford Wives – every district he works with is the same; what good is that?”
Another anonymous participant didn’t think the Dream Team exercise was “going to solve any real problems, and neither did anyone in my group. The saddest part is that everyone put a lot of effort into it. We have way bigger problems than this, like our drop-out rate for one. And academic basics. The leader said the basics were not part of this, referring to proficiency in reading, writing and math as ‘so 20th century.’ He lectured us that we were there to identify new 21st century qualities of collaboration, leadership and being a global citizen. I think our kids start out as cute, adorable kindergarteners and somewhere along the way, we fail them! Why aren't we looking at that instead?”
Where do we go from here?
The board voted unanimously at the March 21 board meeting to adopt the “Portrait” vision, with Board President Keith Lapeze welcoming the new plan as a replacement of the district’s current antiquated vision which was “dictated to us by the folks in admin as what our vision should be, with no community input.” Lapeze and Trustee Angela Conrad recently described skilled graduates as “the final product of the district that will ultimately measure Humble ISD’s greatness.”
On the last day, many Dream Team participants wondered about the next steps. EdLeader21’s set protocol outlines the next steps as building professional capacity and focusing curriculum and assessment to the portrait. The goal is to integrate the six competencies into all aspects of learning and curricula. Some EdLeader21 schools have built rubrics to define creativity, while others have built performance tasks through which students demonstrate the competencies.
Both Dixon and Cantrell had concerns regarding the plan, which Cantrell described as “very lofty” and “likely to overload teachers.” She also stated that too much time was spent on a logo and branding during the last session – time she would have preferred to use to discuss implementation. Dixon echoed Cantrell’s concerns.
“How do the curriculum changes that come with this plan correlate with TEKS and STAAR? Are we hiring a consultant to create a curriculum, or are we going to utilize and expand programs already in place?” asked Dixon. Dixon also said that it is unclear how effective the “portrait” competencies are at bridging the gap with underserved student populations.
The anonymous participants asked the same questions: “How EXACTLY is all this going to impact our kids? Will we start in kindergarten or high school? How do we teach this? Can teachers actually DO this and measure it in a tangible way?” Kay quickly responded that these questions were not for this group to answer. “The board can do that,” he said, to which a participant said, “There is NO game plan at all!”
Fagen responded to the comments, “I’m sorry to hear that people had these negative experiences. Feedback from the sessions was positive, so I wish these participants had discussed it with me in between meetings, because we would have talked and Ken would have made adjustments. It really was a wide-open, genuine, good-faith effort.”
Although the district has not released an implementation plan, an inkling of the future might be gleaned from the three-year strategic plan from DCSD, where Fagen also implemented Portrait of a Graduate based on the EdLeader21 model. The following are excerpts from that strategic plan:
Reviewing disbursement of all federal, state and local revenues to each school to create a level playing field for all schools
Investigate feasibility of bond refinancing for charter schools and possible district ownership of charter facilities
Review all school charges for district services
Development of online learning opportunities as well as home education opportunities
Developing a comprehensive charter school authorization process
Develop a five-year plan for home education
Investigate special education models for charter schools
Develop 21st century student skill rubrics (this did not occur until two years into the effort)
Develop personal pathways/plans
Introduce a Student Performance Assessment System
Implement an Educator Performance Assessment System and an innovative pay-for-performance system
EdLeader21’s promotional material states that “Every school or district that has gone through this process has found it to be an upbeat and empowering dialogue about the future of education.” This is certainly true of Fagen and the board, but is not a correct depiction of the entire Humble community. Time will tell if the community gets on board as the “Portrait” is implemented over the next several years.