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There has been a great deal of media coverage recently about state national education issues and much of it is confusing and contradictory.  Many of these news reports use jargon and terms that can be unclear such as “Common Core Standards”, “No Child Left Behind”, and “Smarter Balanced Assessments”.   As parents, we hear bits and pieces of these reports but not many of us have the time to wade through it all to put together the pieces of the story.

The Roots of our state assessment system go all the way back to 1965

On April 9, 1965, the Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.  This landmark legislation allocated large amounts of financial resources to meet the needs of students from low-income homes.  For the first time, the federal government acknowledged that some students need more services to reach the goals that are set for all students.  The federal money allocated to schools for low-income students is referred to as Title I funds.   ESEA is a law with a limited lifespan and therefore, has been reauthorized by congress several times since 1965.  For more information about ESEA, click here.  http://www.ed.gov/esea

No Child Left Behind was a new name for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act

In 2002, President George W. Bush reauthorized ESEA and renamed it the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  For the first time, the federal government created a large role for itself in pubic education with the mandate that all states must have student assessment systems that expose achievement gaps between groups of students.  NCLB also came with a series of sanctions for schools that didn’t meet targets, which increased dramatically each year.  In California, the STAR tests were created in order to meet the federal requirements of NCLB.  Despite widespread dissatisfaction with NCLB, these tests were given in California up until Spring 2013.  At Tam District, our test scores have had an upward trend for the past decade.

Common Core Standards change the national dialogue

Part of the backlash against NCLB was because all fifty states had the flexibility to adopt different standards for what students need to know and be able to do as well as different systems to assess student achievement.  The Common Core Standards initiative was borne out of the frustration of the inconsistent standards and testing systems.    They are an attempt to nationally standardize knowledge and skills taught to all students.  Although the Common Core Standards have been the topic of some controversy, they were written by educators and focus on using information and skills to solve real world problems.  Under Common Core, the same skills that have always been taught will continue to be taught and there is now an increased emphasis on the application of knowledge.

The new state testing system will assess students on the Common Core Standards

Last  spring all school districts in California  assessed students using a new system known as “Smarter Balanced” tests.  This new set of tests are aligned to the Math and English Language Arts Common Core Standards and will include both multiple choice questions as well as performance tasks that require students to apply knowledge and solve problems.  At the high school level, only 11th graders will be tested.  For more information about these assessments click here http://www.smarterbalanced.org/smarter-balanced-assessments/

Data will be more useful than ever

The smarter balanced assessment system is a mandatory requirement from the state for all schools in California.   The information gathered will be available to schools, teachers and parents relatively quickly and it promises to be more useful than data received in the past.  Additionally, the inclusion of performance tasks will allow a level of understanding of a student’s ability to apply knowledge.  For sample performance tasks click here.

http://www.smarterbalanced.org/sample-items-and-performance-tasks/

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If we stand still in a rapidly changing world, we will be quickly passed by.  As educators, we must be aware that our role is to prepare our students to enter an increasingly competitive job market and college application process.  If we accept the status quo when other schools and districts are making improvements, our students will be denied the highest quality education possible.

Continuous improvement is imperative and must be driven by a robust statement of mission and corresponding strategic plan.  A strategic plan charts a course for a specific future by setting goals designed to move the organization towards its aspirational mission.

In comparing district leadership and student achievement, Waters and Marzano (2006) identified five specific district leadership responsibilities that positively correlated with student achievement:

  • Establishing a collaborative process to set goals;
  • Establishing “non-negotiable goals” (that is, goals all staff must act upon once set by the board) in at least two areas: student achievement and classroom instruction;
  • Having the board align with and support district goals;
  • Monitoring goals for achievement and instruction;
  • Using resources to support achievement and instruction goals.

Ultimately, the responsibility of strategic planning belongs to the School Board.  According to the National School Board Association, One of the primary responsibilities of a school board is to set direction for a district. Boards should work with their communities to set a direction for the district through the creation of a mission statement and then development of specific goals intended to move the organization closer to realization of that mission.

The first step in the strategic planning process is usually to create a student focused mission statement.  This statement should reflect the values of the community and be focused on the outcomes expected for students rather than the actions or behaviors of adults such as teachers, administrators or parents.  The mission tells us what a graduate of our schools should know and be able to do.  Mission statements are aspirational rather than a statement of what exists today.

Because public schools should be a reflection of the communities in which they exist, there should be a process of input from parents, students, staff and community members.  Forums and surveys are typical data gathering processes.  Before a mission is set, there must also be a thorough examination of data for all aspects of district functioning including student achievement, discipline, climate, district financial records and human resources records.  It is the responsibility of the school board to create and approve the mission, but this should only be done after careful consideration of input and data.

After a mission has been created and approved, the Board of Education typically establishespriorities, which are the major areas that must be addressed in order to make progress toward the mission.  All areas of school district operations should be at least considered when creating a comprehensive plan.  Of course no plan is complete without priorities in the areas of curriculum and instruction but other areas of consideration may be finance, human resources, student services (counseling, discipline, wellness), community engagement, public relations/communications.

Once priority areas are determined, strategic goals should be set in each area.  Again, each step of the process should involve opportunities for input and collaboration with staff, parents, students and community.  Each strategic goal should clearly lead the organization towards achievement of the mission.  School boards should closely monitor progress towards goals and amend the plan over time so that it stays relevant.  Once a strategic plan is in place it must be updated regularly.  Goals that are accomplished should be celebrated and new goals that lead to the mission should be added.

Overall, a strategic plan provides direction for staff.  The role of administrators is to implement the strategic plan rather than to strike out on their own about what they independently believe to be the best course of action.  In the simplest terms, the School Board determines the “what” and the staff uses their expertise to determine the “how”.   Neither the staff or board can work in isolation, they are a team and they need each other in order to truly engage in continuous improvement on behalf of students.

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“Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”

Carol S. Dweck,Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success

Over the course of my career it has become clear to me from both extensive research and practice that absolutely every child and adult can learn at high levels if they are given the right amount of time and support.  As a teacher, it is not simply my job to deliver content, but instead my focus is on ensuring that those around me are both growing and reaching high levels of proficiency.  In order to achieve these goals, I believe that educators must subscribe to what Carol Dweck refers to as the “growth mindset” and the following elements must be present in our work:

  • Clearly defined and stated learning outcomes at various levels of complexity

For the last seven years, I have worked closed with Jay McTigue, author or Understanding by Design and the Marzano Research Laboratory to develop a system of clearly stated learning outcomes for all of the programs and courses within our schools.  According to Robert Marzano, effective learning goals provide both the student and teacher with a clear understanding of the target knowledge.  Effective learning requires that we are transparent about the learning goals, how we define proficiency and how we will measure growth.  When a student knows where they are headed as well as their current level of functioning, they can work with their teacher to develop a meaningful plan to reach their goals.  I also believe it is imperative to scaffold learning outcomes in a manner thatincreases complexity over time. I start with ensuring acquisition of content knowledge and then create opportunities for analysis and application of that knowledge to unique real-world problems.

  • Engaging and innovative research based instructional strategies

Students must be actively engaged with material in order to achieve high levels of learning.   Students should find the information and activities challenging and yet engaging.  Lectures that provide information that can be found in a text or with a simple Google search are ineffective.  Although I employ a variety of strategies depending on the needs of my students, I have found particular success with a project or problem based approach.  According to the Buck Institute for Education, Project Based Learningis ateaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem, or challenge.  Unlike the older methods of “doing projects” at the end of a unit, Project and Problem Based Learning as we know it now, allows teachers to work in a collaborative manner with students who are engaged in deep learning.I view myself as a collaborator with students and a facilitator rather than a lecturer.

  • Effective use of formative assessment and feedback to personalize the learning process

The research of John Hattie has allowed educators to demystify the learning process and his simple statement of “know thy impact” should be the driver for teaching.  Hattie’s synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses of educational researchtells us that we should focus on the strategies and practices with the highest impact.  Providing feedback and effective use of formative assessment are among the highest leverage strategies that a teacher can employ.  Feedback must be honest, accurate and delivered in a caring manner intended to convey essential information about the learner’s current level of functioning and progress.  Similarly, using a variety of methods to gather formative data allows me to tailor instruction to the needs of the group as well as individuals.

  • Trusting relationship between teacher and learners that fosters perseverance

The very act of teaching implies that there is a respectful and trusting relationship between the instructor and the learner. As a teacher, I must create an environment where every student feels valued and appreciated.  The environment needs to encourage risk taking, and an understanding that failure is part of the learning process.  It is only from these failures that we understand our misconceptions and are able to engage in a process of deep learning.   Allowing our students multiple opportunities and methods to show proficiency, taking the time to get to know students personally, and working individually with students when possible are methods that build trust.

Education has been my passion for my entire life.  I care deeply about improving outcomes for all learners and ensuring that everyone has an opportunity for success, no matter their level of background knowledge when they begin.  I have taught a wide variety of adults in a number of venues over the years.  When I taught at the university level, I was successful with both inner-city teachers as well as teachers from affluent suburbs by having high expectations for all, respecting their backgrounds and experience, being available for extra assistance and working tirelessly to ensure their success.  Similarly, I have worked as a practitioner in public schools with thousands of teachers over the last 25 years.  I have worked with my leadership team to develop ongoing professional development for new teachers as well as experienced teachers.  I am proud that our teachers are truly 21st century instructors who are innovative, effective users of technology and truly embrace a problem solving approach and that our data shows steady improvement in student achievement over time.

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Attending a comprehensive high school is part of the unique experience of receiving a public education in the United States.  According to the Webster Dictionary the word comprehensive is an adjective to describe “including many, most or all things”.  The fact that American high schools attempt to be all things to all people should be cause for celebration and in fact, is part of what’s great about our schools.

The purpose of our schools is to ensure that all students learn at high levels and graduate prepared for college and career.  However, learning should include not just academic, but social and emotional growth as well.  Participating in one of the many extracurricular activities offered by a comprehensive high school can provide a student with a multitude of opportunities for collaboration, leadership, and to express their creativity.  These opportunities come from participation in not only traditional athletic and fine arts programs but clubs as well.  At most comprehensive high schools, almost any student can find a club to meet his or her interest.  At my previous district we had clubs that met a variety of students desires including meat society, conspiracy club junior statesmen, knitting club and fishing club.

An extracurricular activity is sometimes the factor that drives a reluctant student to come to school.  The truth of the matter is that most teens, at one time are another, are reluctant to come to school.  Students who see some or all of the academic work as rote or drudgery find their time participating in an extracurricular to be the most interesting part of the day.  The growth and learning that occurs during clubs, sports and activities can seem effortless because the student is engaged in an activity in which they have high interest.

Athletics, arts and clubs are part of what make our schools special and are often what our students remember most fondly from their years in high school.   As adults, there are one or two special teachers who stand out in our minds, but almost every adult has a variety of memories of high school from playing in “the big game”, to cheering their team on to victory, to performing in a music ensemble or drama production or perhaps watching a friend give a performance they never thought possible.

Although the economy is now on the upswing, when things get rough again, surely one of the first conversations about how to save money will be to cut arts, clubs or athletics.  These discussions often ignore the irrefutable fact that these activities offer invaluable learning and leadership opportunities for our students.  If we define twenty-first education skills as creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking and we recognize that athletics, clubs and the fine arts foster these skills then we should actually increase opportunities for involvement of students.  Some schools have gone as far as requiring that students have extra curricular involvement because they recognize the essential learning that occurs in these venues.

American high schools are often the target of negative attention in the media and by reformers.  However, the notion of a comprehensive high school with a wide array of sports, clubs, fine arts opportunities and leadership opportunities for students is one area in which our schools excel.  It’s part of what makes our high schools special and something to celebrate.  As an educator, I’m proud of a record of decision-making that supports and expands these amazing opportunities for our students.  If you have any doubt about the importance of these programs, I challenge you to attend the next performance or sporting event at your local high school and see for yourself what our students have accomplished outside of the classroom.

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For many years there has been a national dialogue regarding the gap in achievement between low-income, minority students and their middle to upper income, white peers.  As we compare standardized test scores, grade point averages and graduation rates, we can easily see a persistent gap between these groups.  In fact, in many school systems, we can predict the outcomes for a student based on their zip code or the size of their parents’ paycheck.   Most educators find this gap unacceptable and many programs and ideas are introduced annually into schools in order to help reduce the gap.  The research on the efficacy of these programs varies, but for the most part, despite the good intentions of educators and policy makers, the achievement gapspersist.

When we focus on the achievement gap, we consider the measurements of results. In other words, the focus in on an outcome or what a student is able to do after a semester or year of school.  What if we were to change the conversation so that we focus on the experience of students rather than the measurements we use after the fact?  Many educators have adjusted their language and their thinking on this issue and now focus on the opportunity gap rather than the achievement gap.  The question that we should really be asking is about inputs, or the experience of the students.  Do all students in the system have the same opportunity to experience success?  When we consider the opportunity gap, we examine the differences between what courses and experiences are available to various groups of students.

When we take an honest look at schools, we often see very different experiences for low income and minority students.  A few questions to consider:

  • Do all students have access to at least grade level instruction or are some students placed into remedial tracks with very little chance for advancement?
  • Are there research based, non-optional interventions available to all students who struggle academically and emotionally? Do these interventions allow students to stay in grade level courses? Do experts administer these interventions?
  • Are minority and low-income students proportionally represented in honors and Advanced Placement courses? If not, are their barriers to admission that prohibit students with the desire to challenge themselves?
  • Are minority and low-income students over represented in special education programs and courses? Statistically, these students are no more likely to be disabled than their peers.
  • Are minority and low-income students proportionally represented in specialty and niche programs such as International Baccalaureate, magnet schools or charter schools? If not, what barriers to admission or participation exist?

If we believe that our schools should prepare all students for college and career, then it is imperative to eliminate the gaps in opportunity that our students often experience.  All students should receive at least grade level instruction and those who need extra assistance to function at grade level should have access a robust system of intervention and support.  We should not be able to look in a classroom door and know that it’s below grade level, tracked class because of the color of the students’ skin.  If we are fulfilling the promise of American education, gifted, honors, and Advanced Placement classrooms should be visually indistinguishable from grade level courses.  The barriers to participation in rigorous programs must be eliminated.  All students deserve access to the very best that every teacher and school have to offer.

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