Archive for the ‘Lessons Learned’ Category

We should be furious… at whom?

November 13, 2007

We must be more candid and talk more honestly about students who are below grade level.  We are turning our backs on these students if we don’t.

We have multiple schools in which more than half of all fifth graders are below grade level in math.  Do we have any reason to believe that they are prepared to succeed in middle school?  How long until these students drop out of school altogether.

It makes some people furious when a majority of students in a school are below grade level but the message is “everything’s fine” or “we’re making progress.”

Others of us choose to look the other way.  It is more comfortable to focus on students who are doing well rather than get exercised about students who are below grade level.

I agree with those who are furious.  We should be furious.  But that begs at least two questions: furious at whom?  And, how should we respond?

Should we be furious at principals and teachers who can’t seem to inspire or cajole students at their school to perform better?  Some people would like to publicly brand schools such as Spangler (the school where fifth grade CSAP math scores are lowest) as failures.

Let me ask, if all the teachers from Longmont Estates (where fifth grade CSAP math scores are highest) went to Spangler and vice versa, do you think student test scores at Spangler would go through the roof and scores at Longmont Estates would fall through the floor?  No one I know believes this.  Most people believe the scores at both schools would stay about the same.

I understand people’s frustrations that there is public silence about student performance at Spangler.  I wish that principals and teachers would be clamoring for significant changes to the system.  But, I’m not certain how a “scarlet letter” makes things better if there’s not public support for action.

Should we be furious with parents who don’t value education and who don’t show their children enough support?  I can understand some of this frustration.  It makes me mad.  But, I think we must be more honest about differences in family capacities.  It is ridiculous to think that a parent who had a bad educational experience themselves – or immigrant parents with multiple jobs as is common at Spangler – can provide the same level of support as well educated and “stay at home” parents.

We have to decide are we going to take a get tough approach with “slacker” parents or should we offer parents more help to support their children.  It should probably be a combination of the two.  There are some initiatives to boost parent capacities, but I can’t discern whether we have a system wide strategy.

Should we be furious with lazy and disrespectful students who don’t appreciate the opportunities they’re being given?  Again, I can understand this type of frustration.  It bothers me when students show disrespect.

We need to take a look at our retention policies.  We need to empower principals to be more directive about when a student is ready to advance to the next level.  We don’t do a child any favors by just letting them move to the next grade level.  We can’t be so deferential to parents who ignore advice.

But, I also know that a “do better or else” strategy will have limited impact.  And, in some cases, the get tough approach alone will simply drive up student dropout rates.

Here’s the thing.  The only strategies that consistently help low income students (and let’s be honest, that is who we are talking about) make academic gains are schools such as KIPP.  These schools extend the school day, week and year.  It is common for KIPP students to receive 60% more schooling than students at traditional schools.  If we were serious about supporting St. Vrain’s low income students, we would be clamoring for this type of school model.

Is there the political will to provide Spangler students – and other low income students – with more instruction time?  I hear more complaints than compliments when low income students receive a fraction of extra support let alone 60% more.

So, should we be furious with community critiques that complain about student performance but refuse to get behind strategies that are known to work?  I can understand frustrations toward the critics, too.

But, quite frankly, I think we all can look in the mirror and find fault.  As Martin Luther King often noted, he was less concerned about those who actively opposed civil rights and more concerned with those who knew civil rights were important but said nothing.

We aren’t going to make progress in supporting our children as long as we keep calling each other failures, liars, bigots, hypocrites and Pollyannas.   But, we’re also not going to make progress as long as we in the community sit silent and hope “those schools” will take care of the problems.

Name calling and silence breed unhealthy conditions.  Under these conditions people are prone to be deceitful, to make things seem better than they are or to ignore problems altogether.  There is a strong human drive to avoid conflict.

We must be more candid about what’s going on and what’s need to create change.  We’ve got to starting by toning down the rhetoric and breaking the silence. 

Our children need us to act like adults.

School Visits

October 5, 2007

Here is a list of the schools I have visited as of October 5.  I hope to make school visits an ongoing activity as a way to keep learning what’s going on in our district.  As you will see I have not yet been to Erie, Meads or Lyons.  That’s a gap I need to fill.  What’s more, I have visited less than 1/3 of our schools.  I’ve got a lot of work to do in the months ahead.

This is part of the challenge of having such a large district.  Board members certainly can take a divide and conquer approach to learning about what’s going on in schools and communities within the district.  But, people reasonably expect all board members to make decisions that affect their communities and children based on personal knowledge – not just what another board member tells you.  That means that each board member must develop a knowledge base about what’s going on for themselves.  In a school district of this size, with the number of schools and municipalities that we have, that’s difficult – especially for a volunteer position.  It does not obsolve board members of trying to visit as many schools and communities as possible but the time adds up.

Anyway, here’s where I’ve been so far.

Elementary Schools: Columbine, Eagle Crest, Northridge, Alpine

Middle Schools: Heritage, Altona, Coal Ridge, Sunset

High Schools: Silver Creek, Longmont, Niwot

Other: Transition Program for Students with Disabilities

Bud the Teacher asks, How do we continue to be active learners?

September 5, 2007

I am looking forward to meeting Bud the Teacher tomorrow.  I listen to his podcast and read his blog.  He is in a new job with the district working on technology district wide.  Our conversation will be a chance for me to learn his perspective about what we’re doing well in the technology realm and what we can do more, better or different.

I also am interested in discussing a point that Bud made on his most recent podcast.  I’m paraphrasing the question he posed: How does a person in a decision making role maintain an active learning approach as he/she goes about his/her work?  Bud points out that it is easy for a person in a decision making role to fall into the trap of "I’m supposed to know all the answers."  The notion of having all the answers is absurd, of course.  But, the pressure is there.

I know that I feel this pressure as a candidate for school board.  It is not uncommon for people to ask me, "What’s your position on…"  By definition if you’ve taken a position you’ve ended the learning process.  That may be appropriate in some instances but in most cases it’s not.

Now, I do think it’s reasonable for people to expect someone seeking public office to have opinions.  It’s reasonable to expect a candidate to have thought through issues and reached some conclusions.  But we all know that people in decision making roles, including public officials, will face new issues.

That’s why I also think it’s important to ask people seeking public office for more than their positions.  I believe that we also should expect people seeking public office – or in other decision making roles – to have developed a process or discipline for learning. 

Here is a first draft of questions we might want to pose to candidates for office (I will try to blog about this in the future):

– How do you go about learning about an issue before you make a decision?  Whose counsel do you seek and why?

– What values do you use to filter information?  How do you account for other’s points of view?

– What criteria do you use to make judgments?  How do you balance competing criteria?

I’m not suggesting that we want people in decision making roles to be navel gazers.  But I do expect people who make public decisions to strive to be active learners – and not know it alls.

Sometimes easier said than done.

One last thought that Bud’s question raised in my mind.  Or, perhaps, another question.  What can we do to help people in decision making roles be active learners rather than just get angry when they hold positions different than our own?

Thanks Bud and I look forward to meeting you tomorrow.