Friday, July 9, 2010

Professional educators lead reform efforts

Yesterday, I expressed skepticism that some of the top-down, one-size-fits-all strategies propounded by the Obama and Bush administrations for educational reform were appropriate for Districts like our own. Of course, everyone has their own definition of what reform means. But for me, reform means addressing the educational needs today's generation of young people by implementing proven new ideas that work. It means overcoming resistance to change for the sake of keeping to the status quo. It means addressing the emerging crisis in preparation for "first generation" students, so that we realize the full potential of all of our young people. It means responding to the challenge that we do a better job of educating the bottom quartile of students who aren't graduating proficient in math, science, reading and writing.

I said yesterday, that I don't think that pundits, politicians and even school board members are able to dictate how needed change should be implemented. I said that those of us who aren't professional educators must approach the issue of reform with a sense of humility, recognizing that we are remote from what's going on in the classroom. The evidence of the past decades demonstrates that in our district, positive change has always come from hard work and innovation led by the best of our teachers and professional educational leaders. To make continuous progress, we must continue to find ways to unlock the potential of our most creative, innovative and inspirational educational leaders.

Our first son entered District 742 in about 1984. Since that time, there have many significant positive changes in our school district, and most of those changes have been successful because they were sponsored, supported, and implemented by outstanding teachers and innovative educational leaders who said, "I want to try something better." In that period, gifted teachers developed the area's first advanced placement classes, and then over the years, introduced more and more of these rigorous, challenging courses. A lot of work went into that innovation, and one by one, high school teachers learned new and demanding courses, recruited students to participate, and demonstrated their ability to teach courses to our students that are as demanding as found in most introductory college classes. For those of you who have never taught, it may seem a simple matter to make a change in curriculum or teaching practices. Even introducing a new textbook requires a tremendous amount of preparation, but implementing significant meaningful change, such as adding an advanced placement course, is a major undertaking that involves research, extensive preparation, and then years of work trying to make the new course work.

In our district, significant improvements in the teaching of elementary science were developed and advocated for by gifted teachers who were lovers of science, and they put a lot of hard work into making those improvements. In more recent years, improvements in the rigor of our junior high classes have been implemented, again with the active support and hard work of teachers who cared enough to adapt their teaching practices to make things better for kids. Parents, board members, and the curriculum folks supported those changes, but they couldn't have occurred without active support, planning, and innovation by the teachers and professional leadership in the schools. These improvements are way easier to think up, than they are to implement. Improving a social studies course, or introducing new computer or calculator technology, or modern interactive white-board technology, requires hundreds of hours of time from dedicated teachers who are inspired to make their classrooms work better for kids.

In the last several years, several teachers have been working very hard to integrate pre-engineering programs in our district using the Project Lead the Way model. Project Lead the Way is an exciting program that appeals to so-called average students, because it connects pre-engineering to projects that kids can do with their hands. Just as auto mechanics inspired that group of kids back when I was in school, now pre-engineering experiences like Project Lead the Way, provides an exceptional opportunity to attract and retain a group of kids who might otherwise lose interest in school. Project Lead the Way didn't happen because a school board member did something, although the board gave it our full support. The hard work, the inspiration, and the success of that program resulted from innovative hard work from exceptional teachers.

In the last couple of years, teachers and administrators have begun to integrate web-based technology called Skyward to provide better communication to parents. That change too has required, and will continue to require efforts to innovate and change. The District has implemented a new progress reporting system using the best testing and reporting system, the NWEA, that for the first time provides parents regular accurate information on where their student stands on math and reading based on national norms. Again, a lot of work went into implementing that system, and while it represents an innovation to implement board policy, all of the hard work happened at schools.

What I found over several decades is that significant positive reforms can happen. and will happen, by liberating the creative energy of education professionals. Parents can provide encouragement. School boards can provide support and encouragement, and we can manage change in an environment of accountability, but at the core of positive change you are going to find the teachers in our organization who have the drive to make things better. Sure, there are people in any organization who would just as soon keep doing things exactly as they have been done before. But needed reforms do not happen without the hard work of teachers and educational leaders. This is my issue with the top-down, Washington and St. Paul based attempt to inflict one-size-fits-all reform on school districts.

Now yesterday, I warned that some of the quick fixes propounded by Bush and now Obama-Duncan are not proving successful, at least as measured by emerging data. I wasn't attacking all of those reform ideas, but I was challenging the idea that districts should have to implement changes whether they are going to work here or not. I pointed out that charter schools have not yet demonstrated the payoff that had been promised by proponents. I wasn't suggesting that there aren't good charter schools. Charter schools provide an opportunity to create a new school with a different approach or philosophy, and like regular public schools, some are great and some are not. But increasingly, there is evidence that charter schools, and some of the other centralized top down quick fixes are not what they have been marketed to be by Bush-Obama and Duncan, solutions to the so-called achievement gap. In my next post, I'll talk a bit about the use and misuse of education research to promote questionable panaceas in education. Then, I'll try to talk about some of the reforms that show promise.

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