It took my running mate Jennifer Payne-Parrish and me some time to come up with a slogan for our campaign. Neither one of us is a copywriter. But when we did, we were very happy, because we felt it really did say what we believe: Making good schools better. Together.
So what does it mean? Well, it means we’ve got good schools already. I trust all of you in the system have had some wonderful teachers, and some marvelous lessons and experiences. Anyone whose kindergartner made a 100-day crown, or whose eighth grader got to go to SOPAC for a performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream,'' or whose third grader came up with a great invention as part of The Invention Convention knows about excellent days.
The problem is that it doesn’t happen every day, in every class, in every school, for every student. To move our school system from good to great, we’ve got to make things more consistent; we’ve got to systematize the excellence.
When we thought about it, this is what we decided makes schools great. Great schools prepare every child for college; great schools have excellent curriculums that have enough structure to provide a minimum level of learning but enough flexibility to allow teachers to assess what works best for them and their students; great schools have great teachers who are engaged and engaging, inspired and inspiring; great schools have peaceful, positive, supportive environments, for teachers and students alike; great schools are continually striving to improve, using a process focused on excellence and collegiality; last but not least, great schools are collaborative, drawing on the knowledge, strengths and passions of teachers, parents and the wider community. In other words it takes us all, working together.
So how do we get there? Obviously we need to expect more from our students, our teachers and our administrators. This is not a statement of criticism, but support. To get better we first must believe we can do better. Jennifer and I believe we can.
The first step in improving this rate is making sure our curriculum is up to par. So let’s:
- create a systematic and coordinated curriculum management program, as has been recommended by the last two curriculum audits.
- provide a philosophy of curriculum development — such as, “curriculum development should be grounded in big ideas, essential questions, enduring understandings and differentiated instruction.”
- increase the number of students successfully completing eighth grade algebra, a necessary step toward getting more kids to qualify for calculus.
- make sure our curriculum successfully incorporates Common Core standards, which would bump up the difficulty of the texts our students read and also require them to engage in more nonfiction reading and writing.
- increase the quality and quantity of social studies and science instruction, particularly at the elementary schools.
But a good curriculum gets you only so far. The most important piece of the equation, all parents know, is the teachers in the classrooms.
And, unfortunately, our last two audits have noted deficiencies in practices. According to the math audit, for example, the most frequently observed instructional strategy involved whole group instruction and students completing worksheets. Students were observed to have few opportunities to engage in higher order problem solving.
Next year, the district will pilot a program that will have particularly skilled teachers mentor those who need help. We know teachers talking to each other, comparing notes and strategies is some of the most effective professional development there is and it ought to be strongly encouraged. Likewise, a new evaluation system designed to look more closely at effectiveness and approach should provide more constructive feedback and suggestion.
The middle schools also will have two instructional coaches to help teachers as they move toward integrated and multidisciplinary classrooms. Likewise, the IB program, and the professional development that goes with it, hopefully will provide meaningful skills and strategies for teachers, including collaborative class planning between teachers. These are all good first steps, but the district still lacks an overarching vision, and the continuous and timely feedback and review that is necessary for teachers to feel supported and encouraged as they work toward changing the ways they teach.
- have a clear statement about what we want teaching in our classrooms to look like. And let’s have an articulated plan of how we get there, with coordinated, targeted professional training that is routinely assessed for success.
- monitor implementation of IB at the middle schools to make sure our teachers understand what they need to do, and are doing it.
- make sure that principals are engaged in classrooms and in offering feedback, not as part of the review, but as part of a collegial process that aims at bettering instruction.
That’s it for this week. Next week, I’ll talk about making our schools peaceful, positive, supportive places for students and teachers alike. If you'd like more information on these and other subjects, please check out our website, payne-parrishandswanson.org, and also that of Amy Higer, whose campaign is closely aligned with ours. Her web address is amyhiger.org. The election is April 17. Polls are only open from 2-9 p.m.