Why is February such a tough month in this profession? As many of you understand, I know it is February simply by the pace and tone of my voicemail and email traffic. My weekends are spent catching up on the emails I can't respond to and my weeks are spent grasping for the survival ring as I drown in the "tyranny of the urgent." I readily admit to my own struggle staying positive during this time of year and am usually ready to throw in the towel on this choice of profession around February 20th… Then I notice – it's 6pm and I can see the sun… It's 6am and the sunrise is peeking over the horizon… Standing in a sunbeam actually feels different than the shade… spring break is only 4 Mondays away…
March in the southern half of Minnesota is a welcomed month. The light at the end of the "get to spring break" tunnel is starting to tease it's way into visibility. I saw it today. The end of that tunnel can't get here soon enough. When it does, it'll be a mad sprint to the end, but at least the days will be longer and the outside air will be welcomed inside. So… Good riddens February. Bring on the March sunshine, the birds coming back, and the restored mental health of warm air. Soon we'll be planning the details of final exams, graduation and in the flurry of hiring and scheduling. Good riddens February… We won't miss you a bit!
"Research tells us that students who take Algebra II or who successfully complete 3 – 4 years of high school math have a much better chance of success in college." Does anyone else find this all too common statement by legislators and so called "education leaders" a bit shallow? Haven't college bound students (and those who are successful in college) always completed higher level course work across most subjects areas? Leaders and lawmakers have shifted some of the focus of public education discourse towards a negative and unproductive path - specifically in the areas of math and science. The incredibly important issue of better preparing students for a 21st century economy will not be answered by simple minded, silver bullet actions such as increasing enrollment in AP classes or making all 8th graders take Algebra I. The call for change to improve student achievement demands far deeper, far richer, and far more meaningful conversation.
I am not suggesting that math and science aren't important subjects (or that all students should be required to study Greek). The question is not whether to teach math and science but, rather, what to teach and how. How many students graduate from high school today knowing how to solve algebra problems by rote, but do not understand math as a way of thinking about how to solve problems? Similarly, how many high school students take three years of science – including biology, chemistry, and physics – but do not know what the scientific method is and how to use it, as we saw in the AP chemistry class described at the beginning of the last chapter? We keep hearing that all students need more math and science courses, but I believe that all students need more engaging and relevant math and science courses. The question is: What should all high school graduates know in order to be literate in math and science as disciplines of problem solving?
Wagner gets it. Preparing students to do well on a test is, well, not that tough – and not enough. It simply requires getting a copy of the test and drilling through the concepts and the answers with the students. The insistance on using such tests to measure school performance by those advocating for NCLB and more AP test prep is sorely short sighted. The 21st century economy will require students to do far more than is asked for on these tests and yet the political focus on these tests is driving dollars and attention to, well, the test scores. In the end, we are becoming more and more sophisticated at test preparation and less focused on preparing for what comes after the test… life.
Wagner's call for rigorous dialogue focused on aligning curriculum and school practices with 21st century work place requirements is on the mark. Much more important than taking a few tests, students need to be prepared to think, write, speak, collaborate, research, investigate, synthesize, and create in jobs that are not even invented yet. School performance needs to be measured by how well students are prepared for 21st century success through assessment practices that are rigorous, capture depth and nuance, and well aligned to modern day work place skills, content, and concepts. A look at Wagner's work is a good place to start that conversation.
Several recent discussions regarding plans for a staff development day have left me wondering if others feel the same urgency that seems to plague me endlessly. Research is clear that the most important thing we can do to improve student achievement is improve the quality of instruction. Teachers are the key. While some seem to wonder what they will do with two hours of staff development time that they have to plan for, I constantly wonder how we can possibly improve our performance with the small amount of staff development time allocated to us! It's much like expecting the football team to improve it's performance without any practices… absurd we would say… but that's we coaches/principals have to deal with in public education… game time every day… you get a practice 3 times a year…
To pacify my aggravation, I started a list of some of the staff development needs that are flashing brightly… now if only I had some practice time… here goes:
- Further Rigor & Relevance work
- RTI training
- Development of classroom interventions
- SpEd qualification criteria and processes
- Brain Research
- Teaching meta-cognitive thinking strategies
- Embedding real literacy strategies and curriculum in all subject areas
- Teaching academic writing in all subject areas
- SIOP training
- Leadership development for teacher leaders
- Technology – how to use it to improve student achievement
- Academic Advising
- Building a learning community
- Counseling students
Whew… just getting warmed up…
The Minneapolis Star Tribune ran a story today titled "Shopping for a School" that offers advice from U of MN College of Education associate professor, Yvonne Gentzler, on how to select a school to send your children to. My reaction to advice from newspaper articles regarding critical issues like education is usually an irritated bristle at the gossipy tone and lack of depth. Nine times out of ten it seems a more scholarly approach could be found in the cereal aisle at Cub Foods. While I can't claim that this article was a home run, it certainly offered more than the state's "5 star rating scale" on our annual school report cards. Gentzler encouraged making a list of criteria in advance of going on a visit that is focused on what's important to you. Other tips offered for choosing a school included:
- Visit the school's website
- Attent open houses and request a visit during the school day – preferably with your child… When you're at the school, notice what happens in the halls between classes
- Consider class sizes – some kids will do fine in larger classes; others won't
- Learn about the school's support system
- Check out the lunchroom
- Ask about recess – supervision, how much time, etc…
- Find out about transportation and before & after school programs
- Talk with other parents at the school to find out what their kids like or don't like about it
- Talk with the teachers – ask about expectations, homework, how they communicate with parents, and how behavior issues are dealt with.
- Ask about parental involvement
- Attend a sports event and observe how the coaches treat the players, how the fans conduct themselves and if there is a sense of school spirit.
- Ask about co-curricular activities.
So… I admit my first reaction was to notice a lack of any real mention about student learning only to recognize that I did appreciate not having a bunch of test score variables listed. The more I reflected on the article, the more I appreciated that the advice Gentzler gave actually focused on real questions and real variables for parents that can't be articulated through test scores or the MN school report card.
What are your thoughts? Is this the criteria that we should be held to? Educators – is this the advice you would offer? How should we be measured?