Archive for May, 2008

A word on behalf of newspapers

May 16, 2008

Philip Graham, former publisher of the Washington Post, is credited with saying that the newspaper is the first rough draft of history.  The notion of the newspapers as a rough draft is a good one.

In my work, I have the opportunity to interview a wide range of people about a variety of public issues and public institutions.  Newspapers are not people’s favorite institutions.  It’s typical for people to complain that newspapers are too incomplete, misleading, and "biased."

When it comes to St. Vrain School issues, it is not uncommon for people in our communities to be critical of the Times-Call.

Let me suggest for your consideration that one of newspapers’ deficiencies lies not with the newspapers at all but with we newspaper readers.  I would suggest we have unrealistic expectations of newspapers.

Daily news is reported in a matter of hours and must be made to fit space constraints.  This daily news is, indeed, a rough draft.

We should read the newspaper to pique our curiosity rather than for definitive information from which to draw conclusions.  Indeed, newspaper reporters should begin every one of their articles with this preface:  "You should check this out more for yourself if you find it of interest but here’s something I’ve learned" (of course to do that in practice would be tedious and absurd).

Now, I’m not suggesting that newspapers should be let off the hook for enduring journalism values such as accuracy and fairness.  Those standards are essential.

My brief experience with the Times-Call as a public official, as one example, I’ve been treated very fairly.  The articles written about meetings I’ve attended or have been part of have been accurate.  It also is true that these newspaper articles have not included all the nuance or complete context of the issues.  But that is the very nature of a first rough draft.

I had a chance to talk to a group of Skyline High School students about news coverage and I encouraged them to be curious first and jump to conclusions second (after you’ve done some homework on your own).  I encourage that of us all and to cut newspapers a little bit of slack.

Ben Franklin’s Politics

May 14, 2008

For better or for worse, I tend to subscribe to Ben Franklin’s style of politics.  My understanding of Franklin is that he was quite willing, even eager, to take on difficult political issues but he did so very carefully.  Franklin was the great compromiser who played a critical role in keeping the founding fathers with powerful egos working together toward independence.  Some might argue that Franklin’s style was too soft, at times passive-aggressive and perhaps, at times, inconsistent.  I, perhaps, could make the case myself.  None-the-less when I reflect on my style I probably have more of a Franklin style than the "ram it down the throat" style of Samuel Adams or the ideologue style of Jefferson.  Now, I’m not suggesting by any stretch that I in any way hold a candle to our founding fathers.  I’m just saying, in terms of style, I tend more toward the Franklin method.

I watched portions of the John Adams mini-series on HBO (one of the few perks of business travel).  I will long remember an exchange in one scene between Adams and Franklin.  Adams had just publicly humiliated a member of the Continental Congress who was opposed to declaring independence.  At the pub that night, Franklin scolded Adams for "embarrassing someone in public."  Adams replied sarcastically, "Should I do so in private?"  And Franklin said in earnest, "Absolutely in private.  They might even thank you for it.  But never in public."  Personally, I have been guilty of embarrassing people in public from time to time.  It made me feel good at the time but probably didn’t advance my cause too much.

As I look for ways to help our school district improve, I think about Ben from time to time.

Learning to Change

May 13, 2008

Our schools, our approach to education is going to change significantly in the coming years.

It won’t happen fast enough for some people and it will happen to fast for others.

The process of change will be clumsy at times and happen in a mysterious, organic way at times.

We need to be paying attention, preparing, taking steps toward a different future.

Consider this view of the future (some would say now); a link sent to me by fellow board member Rick Hammans:

http://youtube.com/watch?v=b4VhoWGZ2eA

Conversation Themes – Teachers

May 2, 2008

Yesterday, I posted themes from conversations with parents.  Today, I am posting themes from my conversations with teachers.

I would encourage readers to comment.  Which of these themes resonate with you most?  Which of these themes do not resonate?  Why?  What would you add to the list?

If you are a teacher who took part in these conversations, is there something I missed or got wrong?

The overarching question I posed was: As a school district, how might we move closer toward our potential?Top of Form

Over arching theme:

Teachers are proud of what they are able to accomplish given the resources they have to work with.  They are concerned about the present as well as the future.

Most commonly mentioned issues:

Class Size (instruction time).  Teachers are extremely concerned on the impact of larger class sizes.  They list a number of ways in which larger class sizes will negatively impact their abilities to serve students.  Bottom line:  Teachers suggest that it is structurally not possible to close the achievement gap or stretch the high performers.  In effect, teachers say they are forced to choose between students.

High school teachers indicate that the total number of students they have in their combined sections makes it extremely difficult to have meaningful relationships with their students.

Also, teachers say they are, in essence, being asked to do more work in the same amount of time.

Technology.  Technology is an important issue to middle and high school teachers (it was not mentioned as often by elementary school teachers).  As one high school teacher said, “We are desperate for technology.”  There also are concerns about how difficult it is to utilize existing technology.

High school teachers, in particular, are able to enumerate many ways they would use smart board technology.  However, as Math teachers said at the last board meeting, laptops and projectors are the first priority.

Student Remediation.  Teachers express concern about the number of students who arrive unprepared for their grade level.  This concern is expressed at all grade levels.  It is most pronounced at the middle and high school levels.

Student Support.  Teachers are concerned about cutbacks in and/or the limited number of positions such as literacy teachers and counselors.    Teachers say that when students are not able to receive individualized attention when they need it the classroom environment is further compromised.

Equity.  Teachers at the higher income schools indicate that their work is far easier than at lower income schools.  “It changes everything,” said one middle school teacher.  Teachers at all buildings indicated concern about equity issues.  The equity issues they described focused primarily on teaching tools (e.g. technology, extra books, etc.)

Compensation.  Many teachers made it clear that they are looking at other school districts in the area.  The gap between St. Vrain’s base pay and that of nearby school districts is getting large enough that many teachers are willing to consider a change – though that’s not necessarily their first choice.

Prep Time.  Teachers indicate that they don’t have adequate time to meet in teams (especially vertical teams) and use assessment data to guide instruction.  Given this, some teacher question the merits of the number of assessments students are required to take.  If there’s not time to use the date, the teachers don’t gain any value added.  Other teachers see the assessments as highly valuable but say they need more time to make effective use of this data.  Teachers say, consistently, that they would like more PLC time to focus on horizontal and vertical team meetings to, as one teacher said, “Figure out how to make the curriculum we’re using work for my students in my classroom.”

Teachers would like the community to be more aware that other school districts provide far more prep time to teachers than does St. Vrain.

Vision?  Teachers in four of the five schools said they are unclear on the district’s long term vision.  They indicate that they are seldom part of conversations about the direction of the school district.  At the building level, many teachers recognize that principals are consumed with daily operations and have little time for big picture thinking.  At the district level, they indicate that they are hungry for more communications.

Schools I visited after the Public Policy presentations found the meetings to be extremely helpful.  People said those types of conversations are important to have on an ongoing basis.

Communications.  Teachers want to make sure people in leadership positions are doing the work that’s needed to convey the school district’s message and needs to the community.  They are concerned the stories about the good work in schools are not getting out.  They recognize that there is an important role for them to play in helping to communicate with the community. 

Conversation Themes – Parents

May 1, 2008

Since January, school board members have been making a concerted effort to visit each of the schools within the school district.  We have been holding conversations with parents and teachers in our respective representative areas of the school district.

I have held conversations at the following schools:

Parents:

·         Eagle Crest Elementary

·         Central Elementary

·         Altona Middle School

·         Longmont High School Education Foundation

·         Silver Creek

·         Westview Middle School (attended “town hall” as an incoming parent)

Teachers:

·         Eagle Crest Elementary

·         Central Elementary

·         Altona Middle School

·         Longmont High School

·         Silver Creek High School (Fall of ’07)

Combined:

·         Blue Mountain Elementary Planning Team

·         Rocky Mountain Elementary (Tamales & Talk)

Community:

·         Latino Advocacy Committee

Today, I am posting themes from my conversations with parents.  Tomorrow, I will post themes from my conversations with teachers.

I would encourage readers to comment.  Which of these themes resonate with you most?  Which of these themes do not resonate?  Why?  What would you add to the list?

If you are a parent who took part in these conversations, is there something I missed or got wrong?

The overarching question I posed in my discussion groups was: As a school district, how might we move closer toward our potential.

Overarching Theme:

Respect and support for principals and teachers.  Ready to support/work for more resources for the school district – as long as it impacts the classrooms.  Concerned that the school district is falling behind the times.

Most commonly mentioned  issues:

“21st Century Skills” (my label not theirs).  In every parent conversation, parents said they want their children’s learning experiences to place greater emphasis on creativity, critical thinking and collaboration/group learning.  These types of skills are of greater concern than elevating test scores in the “basics” of math, reading and writing.

More robust curriculum.  As a means toward “21st Century Skills” parents say they would like to see more science and nature (outdoor learning), language instruction at early grades and more emphasis on fine arts, more emphasis on algebra in middle schools.  High school parents are concerned about maintaining AP offerings.  Parents also mentioned integrated learning experiences that combine multiple subjects of the types of things they liked to see more.

Don’t squeeze out recess, play and movement.  Parents are concerned that budget constraints and an emphasis on standardized tests will lead to elimination of play and movement.  This is something parents (elementary in particular) would like to see more of not less.

Rethink Assessments.  Antipathy toward standardized tests came up in every discussion (especially strong among elementary and middle school parents).  Parents, by and large, do not like the current assessment regime.  Parents do not see how standardized tests, for instance, are serving their children’s needs and interests.  Parents do believe that assessments are important but not the current approach.  When asked for alternatives, parents emphasized these types of changes:  Individual growth over the course of a year (personal progression); a portfolio of work, and something that parents can do in response (again, emphasized at the elementary level).

At the high school level, parents want more emphasis on ACT tests and tests that build toward ACT.  These are more relevant and help students gauge themselves nationally, parents say.  I have heard similar comments from high school students.

Consistent (not uniform) Opportunities.  Parents, to varying degrees, accept and/or support the notion of different schools providing students with different options and opportunities.  But, parents are concerned about the unevenness of opportunities – e.g. some schools have a focus others don’t.  Parents also perceive that different schools have different standards.  They say it is difficult to understand what the districts’ standards are.  And, parents say, they don’t understand how decisions are made that enable some schools to provide options while other schools don’t.

Equity.  Parents expressed concern about the disparities that exist, in particular, between new and older schools.  Technology is where they found this most notable.  PTOs with strong fundraising capacities see that they can address these inequities but would rather direct their money in other ways – rather than what they consider paying for basics.

Support for a MLO.  With only a few exceptions, parents expressed willingness and an urgency to help pass a MLO.  Parents want to make sure that a MLO will impacts the classroom in a meaningful way.

Always Responding.  In three of my parent conversations, parents expressed a frustration that the school district always seems to be responding to issues.  “We never seem to be out front on issues,” one parent said.  Several parents said they are uncertain about the district’s long term plans.