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September 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 1

Power Up! / Using Technology for Transparency

I try to accept criticism well. When a person is in a position to make decisions about policies, budgets, and priorities, getting 100 percent agreement is impossible—even unwise. George Patton is reputed to have said, "If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking."
What I don't like is when colleagues disagree with a decision on the basis of information that's inaccurate or just plain fabricated. Education leaders can minimize the probability of this happening by being as transparent as possible.

Why Transparency?

School administrators have discretionary time, funds, and rule-making power. We may not have as many of these resources as other people think, but we do have these resources. Knowing that we're empowered to make choices, our colleagues and the public tend to ask questions like, "Just what does the professional development coordinator do all day?" or "Why couldn't I have a say in that decision about laptops?"
Transparency about school budgets, decision-making procedures, and other realities provides a solid answer to such questions. Organizational change guru Michael Fullan makes transparency one of his six secrets of effective leadership:
Transparency is a good thing; in fact, it is essential to success. Yes, we all know that data can be misused. Public reporting of student results can lead to unfair or destructive actions. However, the alternatives—to keep information private or to refuse even to collect it—are neither acceptable nor useful.

Opening Up

School administrators can use technology to develop a culture of transparency that will help build trust and ensure the success of their programs. Online and digital resources can open a window into many school realities.
  • Budgets. Put any budget over which you have control in an online spreadsheet available for anyone to read—teachers, administrators, parents, and the community. The format doesn't have to be complicated. My district technology budget is about $1.5 million. I share a Google spreadsheet, with comments enabled, that lists the vendor, purchase order number, amount of the order, and a description of what we purchased for every penny my department spends. It's updated in real time.
  • Calendars. Make your calendars—your school calendar, events calendar, facility calendars, and even your personal calendar—available online. Set events that may compromise someone's privacy to show only "busy." Our district has long put general school calendars (showing dates of testing, conferences, term start and end dates, and so on) on our website as downloadable PDFs that can be printed and hung on refrigerator doors. Such openness can change the question from, "What does she do with her time?" to "How does she get everything done?"
  • Goals and Initiatives. Your school's strategic plans, annual improvement plans, and metrics of accomplishment should be available online, with a means for stakeholders to comment on them. Transparency means letting others have a role in creating your vision, plans, and goals. Most web hosting services make creating a formatted text document as easy as using a word processor.
Although the Internet can attract "trollish" behavior, our district's website's feedback tool has provided us with many thoughtful questions, suggestions, and even compliments from stakeholders. Of course, reserve the right to edit comments for privacy or inappropriate language. But divergent views should be part of a community-wide forum on schools and education. As my dad always said, you learn more from your critics than from your friends.
  • Data. Don't wait until the end of the year to file an "annual report." Frequently share data about test scores, retention rates, advanced placement participation, and other metrics that indicate progress. Keep these data current. You might encourage online conversations about such data, using tools that allow commenting.
  • Curriculum. Many parents ask, "What exactly does my child need to know and be able to do to successfully complete a grade or course?" When we put standards, curricular objectives, and major units with assessments online, parents have easy access to the most recent information. Families can actively support their children's success. There should be nothing mysterious about what's being expected academically of any child at any age in any class. Period.
  • Information. For the few households that don't have home Internet connectivity (fewer than 10 percent in our district), you'll need to print out and put in students' backpacks information about supply lists, lunch menus, activity schedules, and other basic information families must see. But posting this information on a well-organized website that is conscientiously updated and promoted, delivers it through the method used by most businesses, agencies, and government bodies. For most people, finding and organizing information online is a lot easier than finding it in the file cabinet or a stack of papers stashed somewhere in the house.
  • Your Opinions. As a leader, you owe it to families and the public to make clear your stand on major education issues. If you think students should have access to divergent opinions about issues, say so. If you believe reading test scores will improve when students are given more opportunities to read materials of their own choice, explain your belief and share the research. When we act in a consistent, open manner, we build trust. Stakeholders may agree or disagree, but they should know our fundamental beliefs.
  • The School Doors. Every educator at one time or another has said, "Wow, if the public could only see the good things going on here, they'd never question our school's effect on student success." Although getting the public physically into schools is difficult, recording not only events but also day-to-day activities and posting videos of them online makes virtual visits feasible. Let people watch your staff teach, watch you assist students and teachers, and watch kids engaged in meaningful work.

Toward "Transliteracy"

What I call "transliteracy" is a skill we should expect not only of our kids, but also of ourselves. Fortunately, online tools make it easy. School websites are so simple to create with WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) page editors that every administrator (and teacher) can construct and maintain departmental subsites. Social networking tools let us share information daily and quickly. Online tools like Google Apps for Education make sharing documents and calendars a two-click process that enables you to control who can see and edit any document.
If somebody is going to criticize me, I'd like it to be for something I've actually done—not something I've been suspected of doing. So I'll continue to be as transparent as possible. Colleagues may disagree with my budget, policies, or plans, but at least they'll have accurate information on which to base their opinions.
Why not make increased transparency a goal for your school?
End Notes

1 Fullan, M. (2008, June). The six secrets of change: Ideas from management expert Michael Fullan. Scholastic Administrator.

2 Web content creation tools like GoogleSites, Wikispaces, and Wordpress provide simple menus for formatting text and adding links and graphics.

Short bio coming soon

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