Barbara Canavan is no stranger to Harford County Public Schools, having worked there for over 40 years. But her recent elevation to superintendent prompted The Dagger to ask about her plans for the school system in this turbulent time for public education.
State mandates in progress or afoot include: a new curriculum this year based on the Common Core State Standards; plans next year for online state tests requiring technology not uniformly available in HCPS; and upcoming teacher evaluations that will, for the first time, include student test scores. Amid these shifting sands, flat funding will likely continue for HCPS, along with teacher protests over a lack of raises in four out of the past five years.
Excerpts from The Dagger’s Q&A with Superintendent Canavan will be published in two parts. Part one appears below covering her leadership style and thoughts about the Common Core. Included are Canavan’s views on careers that don’t require a college degree, and a playground metaphor for adult expectations vs. student potential.
When asked how they make decisions, school administrators often say they do what’s “best for kids” – but sometimes you don’t know what will be best. As an administrator, how do you make and evaluate decisions?
“I’m very reflective in how I make decisions and I rarely make decisions alone… I bring in the parties that need to be there to identify what the problem is, or the issue, or the concern, or the initiative, and ask them if they think that anybody else needs to be at the table…
I really do believe in working in a cooperative atmosphere. I don’t believe that anybody’s opinion is any more important than anybody else’s opinion…I’ve gotten some of my best ideas from a doe-eyed teacher or a lady that works three hours in the cafeteria.
You just never know where the best idea or the best advice is going to come from. And if you are open to that and you don’t really care who gets the credit, it always works out.”
HCPS is one of the largest employers in Harford County with over 5,200 employees, all of whom are paid by taxpayers, but they report to you. What would you like for the public to know about your management style – what do you expect from employees and how do you get it?
“I expect every employee to perform their duties with a high degree of integrity. I expect them to have a strong work ethic, and I expect them to keep in mind that we are here for the kids. It doesn’t matter what role you play, it doesn’t matter who you are, it’s about them. And it’s about making sure that they’re safe and they’re happy and they’re afforded every opportunity that they can get.
The way I make that happen? Well, first of all, if I’m going to hold them to a standard that is that high, I have to hold myself to the same standard…I have to be willing to collaborate, cooperate with anyone on any plane regarding any matter. So if I have a brand new custodian that really, truly wants to talk to me about a situation that they think could improve their job, I have to be available to that person. If it’s a parent, if it’s a child, if it’s a teacher, you really need to build relationships with everybody in the community that you encounter. Nobody is too big, nobody is too small.”
HCPS has been criticized for being insular – parents, business people, some politicians complain that they are out of the loop. Do you agree that HCPS should do a better job of outreach and what will you do differently now that you are superintendent?
“I don’t want to be in a position where I’m going to criticize anybody that’s come before me because I just don’t like to do that…
My door is always open and my leadership team is there and poised to work with people, and to make sure that people are attended to.
Sometimes that’s difficult because a lot of people feel that being attended to means they’re going to get what they want, or the answer will always be ‘yes’. And that is not always the case. You have to make decisions that are in the best interest of the school community and the best interest of an individual child, or an individual employee of a particular school. When you make those decisions, those decisions have to be thoughtful, and they have to be reflective and they have to have input from a lot of sources.
…My feeling would be we can build trust with the community…[they may not] agree with what we do but they may understand the reasoning behind it. That would be my hope.”
Common Core State Standards/PARCC Testing
The goal of the Common Core State Standards is to improve college and career readiness. Given that Maryland is firmly committed to the Common Core and implementation was mandated statewide this school year, what would you tell parents about the HCPS curriculum that’s based on the new standards?
“…I see the standards as opening doors for students to become everything that they can be. And if that’s a career associated with college and beyond, we want to make sure there are pathways for children to get there. If it’s a career that is not associated with college or maybe associated with an associate’s degree, we certainly don’t want to attach a stigma to that. Because not everyone desires to have a four-year degree or beyond, and there certainly is a great deal of pride that’s attached to careers that are not associated with a college degree.”
Regarding the new curriculum, is there a dramatic difference between the old and the new?
“…I think it’s more a refinement in the approach. It’s more rigorous. It’s more authentic. In the past, a lot of the teaching was broad in spectrum but not really deep in developing understanding. These standards are more narrow in their perspective and deeper in understanding.
So, an example might be – and this isn’t necessarily a real example but I think it’s an easy example to understand- if I am going to delve into the comedies of Shakespeare, is it necessary for me to read every comedy and understand everything about every comedy, all the characters… Or should I choose, as a teacher, as a curriculum specialist, comedies that were written by Shakespeare that might be indicative of his work, or nuances of his work, and really get into those comedies, and really talk about the language and really talk about the characters.
I believe that the standards purport a lot of work in problem solving, a lot of emphasis on working in cohorts… You know, we bring our strengths to the table, and our weaknesses are complimented by another person’s strengths. That’s how it works in a real world atmosphere… It builds cooperation, teaches children how to work in a group, it teaches children how to celebrate another one’s strengths and not feel that those strengths are going to diminish [theirs] in any way.
…I think people need to remember this ‘career and college ready’, you know, take the stigma away an individual, from a child, from an adult that doesn’t have a college degree.
…I don’t believe that there’s a hidden agenda behind these standards and I think a lot of what’s happened is the standards have gotten confused with the high level of accountability.
…I don’t know that as educators across the nation we did a really good job in getting people to understand what these standards were and what this accountability piece is, whether it’s the accountability for student assessment, or the accountability for principal and teacher evaluation. I think maybe there were assumptions made that people would willingly accept without explanation, or just with cursory explanation. And we’re coming to find out that that is just not the case.”
So there are the Common Core standards that were put together by the states, and the Maryland curriculum is based on those standards, and the PARCC tests are aligned with the standards, because the tests can’t be aligned with the curriculum in every school district?
“Yes. So what we did was a curriculum match. We looked at our curriculum to make sure that it was aligned with Common Core… and it’s a pretty good match! I think the biggest piece that has come out of the study of the standards and the alignment is that we weren’t challenging our kids enough. We didn’t have as many children avail themselves of AP classes for example…. The middle school sequence in mathematics was realigned and it’s much more rigorous than it’s ever been. The goal, of course, is that every child will graduate with a minimum of success in Algebra II. And that’s a pretty high standard. And we’ll get there.
I really do believe we’ll get there because I’m a firm believer that kids don’t know what they can’t do. It’s the adults that say: ‘I don’t think you can do that…it might be too dangerous for you to go off the big slide today’. Meanwhile, you turn around and [the kids are] already down…”