Some Education Thoughts, and A Vent or Two

During the past few years, I have become increasingly disturbed relative to the directions that both local and national emphases have taken toward the demand for educational accountability. As a matter of fact, our state legislature this month stripped the elected Superintendent of Public Instruction of most of her duties and responsibilities, arguing that under her management of the State’s Department of Education, she had not effectively carried out the legislature’s dictates toward establishing a productive system for measurement of school effectiveness and student achievement. Instead, they are creating a Director of Education position within which the legislature’s directives constitute a major focus. The existing Superintendent will retain some comparatively minor responsibilities and function with only a relatively small staff. It needs to be mentioned that there were some other concerns expressed by Wyoming educators through their legislative representatives, so it was not only the accountability issue that precipitated the action.

As a part of this upheaval, the role of assessment played a major role in decisions about how schools should be held accountable. During the past 20 years, Wyoming has been a leader nationally in establishing high standards within assessment programs. In the early 90’s, school districts were directed to individually establish standards for graduation, a difficult task especially when most of the school districts are quite small and have a limited number of staff members having the time to accomplish such a complex assignment. Many of our districts looked to the three largest ones, ones that were well-staffed with specialists and having significant funding to support the “movement”. Materials that were developed in these “anchor districts” were shared across the state, but as they differed somewhat one from the other, there continued to be a lack of consistency in the measurement of student achievement throughout the state. Ultimately, the state offered standards in nine subject areas, that could be adopted by districts, and most did so. Unfortunately, the state left the task of developing assessments of those standards to the local districts, we were still left with the difficult issue of inconsistency throughout the state, and the problem of not having enough staff to create effective, well-aligned measures.

The district in which I was the Curriculum Director attacked the initial assignment in two directions; first, we hired two consultants to provide leadership in developing and aligning assessments with our district’s curriculum objectives, by subject area and by grade level. Second, we formed a committee of school personnel and community representatives to establish requirements for graduation.

That first direction was relatively straightforward, I doubt if there is any school district anywhere that doesn’t rely to either a greater or lesser extent on test data. But it was the second activity that was the most exciting; I’ll try to give a brief overview here and expand upon it at a later date. Here’s what we did:

Instead of looking toward tests and grade points as the foundation of decision-making, we asked the question, “What do we want our students to be able to do when they leave our high school?” This led to discussing what background a student needs in order to be successful, regardless of which path is chosen. This led further toward one of the main points included in a blog I just read, High Performing Educational Systems (in “It’s a Halal Life”, by Susan Labadi). I summarize some of her reasoning by stating that Learning and Living should not be separated, knowledge and performance are not conveniently divided into separate little cubicles but must be taken together. She goes on to provide strong support for not removing the so-called “liberal arts” from the curriculum in favor of providing more math, reading, and science; the areas which are the “usual” focus for assessment. To be really “educated”, students need to know that the liberal arts are the fertile ground from which most of “who we are” has grown; the Humanities represent the all-encompassing universal that brings it all together. Math and Science do not exist in a vacuum.

I was further excited to see that she, along with our current President, are making the case for students to graduate from high school with a marketable skill, something for which I was a proponent 20 years ago, but to deaf ears. I think that there has been too much emphasis on “going to college” when in fact there are lots of careers that do not require a college degree. Our state, for example, has a host of high-paying blue-collar jobs related to the mineral and fossil fuel industries. It seemed a bit ironic to me that a number of years ago, recognizing that our state often is “rolling in dough” from the mineral, gas, and oil extraction, our legislature established a scholarship program which would provide for many students’ tuition to one of our state’s higher education facilities. The advertised intent was to keep more of our Wyoming college graduates “in the state”. What they ignored was that there just aren’t that many openings for college graduates within our hiring community; in fact, the coal and oil companies have had to set up their own schools to train new persons for the specialized requirements of their industries.

To return to my overview, we wanted students to demonstrate that they could competently apply what they had learned from their four years of high school. To do this, we identified seven areas, each of which emphasized the interaction of subjects rather than their separation. The seven areas were Communication, Citizenship, Global/Environmental, Health/Fitness, Career/Vocational, History and Culture, Independent Learning. Within each one, a student was to make choices about topics and skills to use and select modes for communicating; the areas were stated in terms of what the student would do. An example would be “Health/Fitness: The student will use a research-based assessment to determine the state of his/her fitness, establish personal fitness goals and implement a plan of action toward meeting those goals.” A variety of evidence was to be used including portfolios, projects, videos, etc.

Note that we didn’t mention, math, science, or reading; since graduation also required meeting certain numbers of course credits, we assumed that the students had had their fill of testing of those topics within their classes. We were interested in seeing if they could use what they were to have learned. An interesting series of discussions focused on Writing; instead of requiring Writing as one of the areas, we recognized several things—First, most people don’t use actual writing as part of their jobs. Second, what they do need to learn is how to organize their thoughts in order to communicate effectively whether it’s through writing, speaking, use of technology, art, etc. Our graduation requirement allowed the student to choose a format with which he/she was comfortable; to choose a topic to either narrate, describe, evaluate, critique, etc.

Another example came from Global/Environmental; we wanted the student to be able to demonstrate understanding of how changes on one part of the planet affected things elsewhere not only environmentally but also economically, politically, and culturally. To be effective, the student would have to draw from a variety of courses. They might choose the Brazilian rain forest as a topic; it’s deforestation in order to grow sugar cane for ethanol has caused a spike in coffee prices throughout the world, due to the loss of coffee growing regions, and added ozone to the atmosphere. Here we see economics, agriculture, politics, and etc. woven together.

Unfortunately, our plan all went by the wayside in the mid-90’s, when the state decided to have everyone write assessments and use them as the basis for graduation along with the usual class credits and GPA. I still hope to resurrect it in some form, somewhere.


Odds and Ends

Social Networks—-One current issue is the florescence of the “social networks” over the Internet. A trustee of our major university expressed his concern about the lack of involvement of students with creative writing; these short “tweets” and facebook texting are “dumbing down” good communication and, in my opinion, interfering with the thought processes that allow for any kind of in-depth introspection either personal or in one’s surroundings. I need to add that I’m also skeptical of all the “distance learning” programs; I’ve yet to see one that even somewhat approaches the effectiveness of a good classroom teacher having the skills described in Ms. Labadi’s blog.

Whom to Blame? A note about an issue in assessment—our legislature has been tussling with the whole “Teacher of Record” problem. If indeed student performance on the usual math, science, and reading tests is to be used to measure teacher effectiveness, then how do the shop teacher, the P.E. teacher, and the Social Studies teacher fit in? Who gets the blame for poor performance? The question remains unresolved!

School Resource Officers—I don’t think they should be expected to be able to deter one of these maniacs from doing terrible things to kids in school. After all, if the SRO has several schools to patrol, the perp only has to wait until the SRO goes to another building. Furthermore, even if there is an SRO for each school, I am of the opinion that if someone really is intent on malicious acts, they can do them. I would rather consider the SRO to be someone who coordinates activities that help to identify youngsters who might have the tendency to become a problem, such as loners, un-involved, social outcasts, bullies. I recall a film, “Cipher in the Snow”, from the BYU film library, which really brings home how some kids are “part of the wallpaper”, with sad results. Many of the recent killers are documented as not having “fit in” when they were in high school; perhaps if someone had made an effort with them they would not have gone “to the Dark Side”. I recall that in evaluating six alternative high schools, when I asked students “Why are you successful here but you weren’t at the regular high schoo?”, I always got some version of the same answer. “Because an adult took an interest in me and wouldn’t let me fail.” Identifying these kids and having activities to address their interests would go a long way to resolving these issues. The SRO could coordinate all of these.

Bridging the Gap—Last week, I referred a young teacher at a Christian elementary school to the series of blogs that I mentioned, written by a leader in the Islamic education community. It’s not much, but maybe a good start. “A journey of a thousand miles begins……..”

Core Curriculum—I think this is a good move because it will promote consistency nationally. At the same time, it raises standards by requiring students to be able to tell “why” along with the traditional “how”.  The latter is based only on the first two levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy instead of promoting knowledge and skills as tools to use in navigating through the avenues of daily living; the “why” moves toward the Applications, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation levels.

Travel—I’m still scheduled for accreditation visits to schools in Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf, in mid and late April. I cancelled a following stop for a school in Kosovo, needing to spend some time with a family member with major health issues. I may drop down to L.A. and Phoenix sometime in March, to deliver some items to my son and to see if I’m still capable of destroying a golf course. It’s become an issue that I’m now required to file an Environmental Impact Statement before setting foot on a course. I’ve been accepted as a volunteer worker at the Wells Fargo Golf Championship in Charlotte, NC, in early May after I return from Bahrain. I’ll also hit the Duke Law School graduation where a close friend’s son is finishing.

Health—-I was disappointed to learn that my correct diagnosis, MGUS (monoclonal gammopathy of unknown significance) is not treated, unless it turns into multiple myeloma (5%-15% of cases). I’ve requested a referral to Mayo, but my doctor hasn’t gotten back to  me about that. Perhaps I’ll hear something by next week, when I attend the Wyoming School Improvement Conference in Casper, where the neurologist is located. I’m still on one 10 mg. prednisone on alternate days for CIDP, and daily doses of the alpha lipoic acid supplement which may or may not help. Less feeling in feet, and maybe some loss of leg strength although I continue my thrice-weekly workouts.

Politics—-I’m tired of Lindsay Graham, John McCain, Chris Matthews. And I have concerns about Chuck Hagel. And how do some of these other idiots get elected—Is the citizenry that stupid?

I hope that the blogs I’ve read recently and referred to are saved for a book–they are extremely well-written and provide thoughtful insights into the educational process. I highly recommend them.

Always Be Happy!       To Our Youth!

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