A Vision Cast

IMG_1415For many of us, Spring Break offers a time to get away from it all, to find a remote beach, to bask in the warm glow of the coastal sunshine, to hear nothing but the crashing of powerful waves as they reach the shore.  While this sound is immense, it provides a delectable white noise that leaves one alone with one’s thoughts, an enjoyable solitude void of the bluster of everyday life’s trivialities.  In the education arena these days, white noise is necessary to allow those of us in the field to focus on our real mission: creating student learning and growth.  Talk of tax caps, the state’s failure to meet economic predictions, budget shortfalls, staff reductions, ISTEP+ scores, graduation rates, and races to the top are all topics of distraction.  While none of these issues is trivial, each takes away from the meaningful discussions about teaching and learning.

A few days back, as I waded through several educational blogposts, I ran across one that particularly intrigued me.  The topic was the new national educational technology plan, and the post suggested that the U.S. Department of Education had successfully created a vision for 21st century education.  I quickly followed the link to the document entitled “Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology.”  As I opened the document and looked through it, I was metaphorically moved to a tropical paradise.  I read:

“The challenge for our education system is to leverage the learning sciences and modern technology to create engaging, relevant, and personalized learning experiences for all learners that mirror students’ daily lives and the reality of their futures. In contrast to traditional classroom instruction, this requires that we put students at the center and empower them to take control of their own learning by providing flexibility on several dimensions. A core set of standards-based concepts and competencies should form the basis of what all students should learn, but beyond that students and educators should have options for engaging in learning: large groups, small groups, and work tailored to individual goals, needs, interests, and prior experience of each learner. By supporting student learning in areas that are of real concern or particular interest to them, personalized learning adds to its relevance, inspiring higher levels of motivation and achievement.

“In addition, technology provides access to more learning resources than are available in classrooms and connections to a wider set of “educators,” including teachers, parents, experts, and mentors outside the classroom. On-demand learning is now within reach, supporting learning that is life-long and life-wide.”   

I remember where I was when ordinary citizens took sledge hammers to the Berlin Wall, when the space shuttle Columbia tragically exploded during its ascent, and when the Colts beat the Patriots on the way to winning the Super Bowl.  Similarly, I believe I will always remember the day when our nation’s DOE recognized the need to employ all of the tools available to us in making our classrooms relevant and meaningful, and in order to structure learning based on an individual student’s needs, abilities, and interests.  I am thrilled that the technology plan for the nation’s schools sees technology use as a means to an end, not as a goal in and of itself.  I am elated that technology is not viewed as a one-way delivery system for one-size-fits-all content, but rather as a vehicle to differentiated content and as an instrument to create meaningful, relevant, and connected student work.

I am also proud that Zionsville Middle School is well down this road.  Oftentimes a document such as this one produces as thought such as, “Well, that sounds great, but how would we ever make that work?”   Thanks to a supportive community and a visionary, hard-working teaching staff, Zionsville Middle School is tasking itself not just with making it work, but with making it the best it can be for the benefit of our students.

May you enjoy your Spring Break, and find relaxation and happiness whatever your endeavor.  The knowledge that your child’s school embodies in the present what others envision for the future may not be your equivalent to a tropical island getaway, but I do hope it can provide some white noise amidst the dour education headlines of the day.

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School Reform, Accountability, and Finance

school-moneyGrab a newspaper, watch the news, scan the  blogosphere and you are quite likely to see stories about the business of schools, and they are primarily in three areas: school reform, accountability, and school finance.  The pieces on these three categories are national, statewide, and local, giving one the impression that the situation in schools is dire, and that all schools share the same issue.  While I completely agree that all schools have challenges, I also believe firmly that each school has a different set of circumstances and needs.  Unfortunately, as I wade through the news, I rarely find a depiction that mirrors our situation in this school community, even though Zionsville has a story to tell in each of the areas.

School reform is a topic that has been around for quite some time.  The post-Sputnik push for more math and science and the 1983 study “A Nation at Risk” are two examples proving that our nation has examined the need and called for reform for quite some time.  This desire for reform has not quelled, nor should it, but the type of reform needed varies from one community to the next.  Recently, much discussion has focused upon teacher licensing, specifically that content-area teachers should hold degrees in their content area, not “lesser” education majors.  Our local practice renders this discussion moot.  ZMS science teachers hold chemistry and biology degrees, English teachers are English majors, etc.  The statewide discussion is valid and important.  Teachers need to be qualified, and there are schools that have teachers teaching out of their areas, or without extensive coursework in their content area.  That’s simply not our situation.  The point is that the need for reform — or, as I prefer to look at it, continuous improvement — is as real here as it is anywhere else (click here to read a previous post about school reform), but the type of improvement necessary is distinctly different, and the broader discussion misses the mark or is completely misleading in our school community’s context.

Accountability has been in vogue for an extended period, as well.  Calls to raise graduation rates, raise graduation requirements, and raise standards are all evidence of increased awareness of student and school accountability.  We use words like “high stakes” to signify the importance of what is to be gained or lost by the  movement.  As with the previous topic, accountability has different meanings in the various contexts.  Test scores, attendance rates, graduation rates and the like are all areas in which our community will lead.  Dare I say that it is a foregone conclusion that ZMS will perform well in these areas?  Is meeting these minimum standards holding our school accountable?  I would argue that multiple choice, “give me the right answer” testing is a low bar, and we should be accountable for more: for teaching our students to analyze, theorize, to state and support opinions, to develop hypotheses and then prove or refute them.  Accountability for us is to make certain that students well above grade-level are challenged, and that students below grade-level are supported appropriately until that is no longer true.  “Race to the Top” suggests that there is an end to the quest, and a competition among educational entities.  This seems misguided to me — there is no end for the need to improve, and schools compete against ignorance, not one another.

School finance is another area that has been front and center across the entire nation.  Before I bemoan a single thing, let me be clear in stating that schools make up a large portion of the State’s budget, that the State is short on funds, and the need for schools to be part of the money saving solution is necessary.  Frankly, I don’t know how else the State could make it through our current financial crisis without looking to schools to save money.  Unfortunately, the discussions tend to turn ugly when belts need to be tightened.  Aspersions of entitled, underqualified, overpaid teachers and administrators are leveled vociferously and unjustly.  People quickly mention a number of programs that should be cut, footnoting their conclusion by touting their own favorite program, which, in their eyes, must not be cut.  Every person and every program has a list of supporters and detractors.  Which programs are unnecessary and which indispensible? Music? Art? Foreign language? Physical education?  Social studies?  Ask ten people and get ten different answers.

All of this leads me to a list of questions:

  • How much is a good education worth?
  • What is the cost of a bad one?
  • Does a school’s effectiveness have an impact on its community — even for families without children in it?
  • Is it important for high-performing schools to strive for improvement?
  • Should education prepare students for the present or for the future?  What’s the difference?

Our community will be wrestling with all of these questions and more in the near future and beyond.  There is no one right or wrong answer, I admit; though I have some strong opinions, among them that we paid more for our homes for the right to send our children to the absolute best public schools available.  What happens to that property value, what happens to our own children’s education, and what shapes their futures will largely be determined in the next few months.  Here’s hoping we make the best decisions about our schools for the benefit of our children and, ultimately, our community.

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