Changing the District Calendar: A Disciplined Approach to Improvement

It seems that almost every year I end up writing a post about our district calendar.    Creating an effective calendar is a balancing act between the needs of the district and the needs of our parents and community.   The district utilizes a calendar committee to gather input from our employees and the community for the purpose of providing the Board of Trustees with recommendations on future calendars.    Identifying the needs of the district is pretty straightforward.  Identifying the needs of our parents and the community can be a little more difficult.

Dr. Steve Miller was the chair of calendar committee.  At the December board meeting, he presented the calendar committee recommendations to our board of trustees.  Many of the committee’s recommendations reinforced components of the calendar that have been in place for many years, including the start and end dates, and the timing of our Christmas and spring breaks.

A couple of the recommendations however, would bring change to our calendar.  One of the recommendations was to stagger the dates of our parent-teacher conferences on different nights for each of our schools.  This would allow parents with students in multiple schools greater flexibility in meeting with teachers.  I think our parents will see the immediate value in this.

The recommendation that will have the greatest impact on parents, addresses the need for our district to deal with student and teacher absentee rates related to activities, and the need for collaborative work time for our teachers.  As many of our 6-12 parents know, activity travel in Wyoming is a unique animal.  It’s not uncommon for our students to miss significant amounts of instructional time as a result of long bus rides to contests.  In an effort to address this issue, the calendar committee recommended that we identify high-absence Fridays (based on activities at the high school) and other logical dates (end of quarter) to schedule half-days for students, while teachers work a full day.

While I support this action to reduce absenteeism and increase instructional time, I prefer a more consistent format that includes an early release every Friday during the school year.  The proposed release time would be 1:30 PM for the high school and middle school and 1:55 PM for the elementary school.  It is important to note that this change would reduce our total instructional time, however we increased the length of our school day this year, and as a result we would still have more total instructional time than we have had in the past.  This calendar would also provide our teachers with much needed collaborative work time and allow our parents to plan for this time on a regular basis.   It’s a calendar variation that’s being regularly used throughout Wyoming by other districts with success.

It’s certainly an added responsibility for our parents in terms of child care; an area of concern that was discussed by our Board of Trustees.  However our teachers are facing an unprecedented work load beyond their regular teaching duties.  The State of Wyoming has adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and a new accountability system is poised to tie teacher evaluation to student achievement.  While we don’t yet know what the state assessment system will look like, we do know that the new assessments will be testing students on the CCSS.  And as a result, every district in Wyoming is working furiously to implement the new standards so that our teachers and students can be well prepared to take the new accountability assessments.

On the surface, it doesn’t sound that difficult to adopt new standards.  In reality it’s a herculean task given our current timelines.   Add to that the work the district is doing on instructional strategies, 21st century skills, and implementing technology, and it’s not hard to understand why our teachers need  some dedicated time for curriculum work, collaboration, and professional development.

Until now, we’ve schedule work time for these types of activities on a few half days throughout the year.  The fact is that we just can’t accomplish all of the work our teachers and administrators need to do outside the classroom during a few half days throughout the year.  Much like fitness, the most effective means for improvement is a dedicated approach, and we will need to work out every week in order to get things in shape for the new accountability system.  Add to this the benefits of reduced teacher and student absenteeism from activity travel, and we think the proposed calendar will help us continue to improve the quality of the education our students receive at SCSD 1.

 

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Posted in Accountability, District Calendar | Tagged | 3 Comments

In Loco Parentis

There’s a small disclaimer at the bottom of my blog.  I’m willing to bet you’ve never seen it.    It says that the opinions in this blog are my own and don’t represent SCSD #1.  I write my blog using a service not affiliated with our district and I’m writing this post on my own time.  I point this out today because some of the comments in this post are non-secular.  If you have concerns regarding that, please stop reading now.

Two days ago, another horrific school shooting took place in Connecticut.  I won’t give the perpetrator the attention he must have wanted by expanding on specific details, but at this point, we all know the vast majority of the victims were elementary school children.  And while some of the intent of this post is to inform our parents of the safety and security measures that are in place at SCSD #1, I wouldn’t be much of a father or an educator if I didn’t ask each and every one of you to pray that the healing spirit of God rest and abide with each one of those grieving families and bring them comfort.

In the near future, and as a result of this incident, there will be another renewed discussion of school safety.  I say renewed because the difficult truth is that our collective memory can be rather short when it comes to these types of things.  Less than a year ago, I wrote a post for this blog addressing the concerns of some folks in our community about new door hardware at the auditorium entrance that required visitors to be buzzed in.

The truth however, is that nothing needs to be renewed about our commitment to student safety and security at SCSD #1, and I want our parents to know that.  As I outlined in a press release from the district, over the past two years we have added additional external safety measures and surveillance equipment.  We have opened our facilities and buses to the Sheriff’s office for training.  We have added a school resource officer and completely revised our crisis management plan and our emergency response manuals to match the incident command system used by first responders.  And most importantly, we continue to schedule and conduct training drills with the Sheriff’s office to address the threat of an active shooter.

There is another truth, sadly, that we must also acknowledge.  Schools by their very nature are designed to be open, inviting places.   As much as we work to ensure the safety of our students, the primary function of a school building isn’t security.  I don’t know where the appropriate balance lies between security measures and the educational environment, but it’s a discussion that we as a nation and a local community will continue.

At the end of the day however, it is our commitment to people who will have the greatest impact on preventing and mitigating violence of this nature.  Bars on windows and locked doors are merely deterrents and mitigation factors.  Valuable certainly, and potentially life saving, but I don’t think that’s where our primary focus should be.  The perpetrator in Connecticut shot through glass windows to open locked doors.   The lives that were saved at Sandy Hook Elementary School were saved by the actions of people, not by static security measures.

Whether anyone wants to really talk about it or not, the basis for our security standards is contained in the Latin phrase, in loco parentis.  It means “in place of the parent”.   It’s a legal term that gives schools the power to act in the best interest of the student.   This is most often used in an educational sense.  But as the heroic teachers and administrators at Sandy Hook Elementary School demonstrated, it’s come to mean so much more.  It means treating your students the way we would our own children, even if that requires making the ultimate sacrificing to protect them.

I can tell you from experience there isn’t lot of discussion about this aspect of being a teacher in the teacher preparation courses in college.  And we don’t have a standard interview question that asks, “Would you take a bullet for your students?”  But as we have recently learned, even the youngest and perhaps meekest of our profession, have done so without hesitation.  If you haven’t recently said thank you to a teacher or principal for what they do, or what we all know they would be willing to do, I encourage to you do so.

But even beyond the commitment that teachers and administrators make to in loco parentisI think it’s even more important that we ALL make this same commitment to one another.   Experts will tell you that those who carry out events like school shootings plan the event for months, and somewhere the clock is ticking on the next event.  For just a moment, let’s collectively take the time to think like a parent for everyone we know.   Who could use a kind word, an email, or a phone call?  Who do we know that’s lonely or isolated?  Let’s take a minute in Pinedale, to check in with our neighbors and the person you see every day, but never seem to find the time to stop and talk with.  Let’s care enough about people we’ve never met, in an effort to truly care for our children.  And let’s do our part locally to ensure that absolutely no one feels like their options in life have been reduced to the point of shooting innocent children and caring educators.

Posted in School Safety | Tagged | 7 Comments

Thank You Jim

Thursday night, the SCSD #1 Board of Trustees will seat it’s newly elected board members.       It’s a transition that will take place all over Wyoming.  Like many district’s, part of this process often includes some sort of recognition for the board members transitioning off the board.  I’m not letting the proverbial cat out of the bag.  It’s pretty standard fare.  And Thursday night we’ll give our departing board members a nice plaque and take our turns saying thank you.  For my part however, I need to take some time and this opportunity to recognize Jim Malkowski for his service to SCSD #1, because his efforts on behalf of children in Sublette County have been anything but standard.

Jim started as a board member in 1991.  And for the past twenty-one years, he’s been an integral part of the fabric that is SCSD #1.  In addition to serving as the chairman of the SCSD #1 board for 11 years, Jim has been a WSBA Area Director, a member of the WHSAA Board of Directors, and a member of the All-Wyoming School Board.  In any given year, including special meetings, we have upwards of 30 or more meetings, and that doesn’t include the PAC and BOCES boards on which Jim served.  When you include all of those meetings, the WHSAA meetings, the WSBA leadership meetings, and professional development opportunities, the number of meetings Jim has attended in his official capacity as a board member easily exceeds one thousand.  That’s a lot of fabric.

It also turns out to be a lot of professional development.  Each year, at the Wyoming School Board Association (WSBA) annual conference, board members around the state are recognized for meeting professional development milestones.  The WSBA has a point system whereby board members receive points for professional development and service on state and national committees.  To become a certified board member, you must earn 50 points.   To qualify for the School Board Leadership “Hall of Fame”, you must earn 400 points.   Jim is exiting our board with 1275 points, the only school board member in Wyoming with over 1000 points.  He is easily the most dedicated board member with whom I have ever worked in terms of his commitment to continuing his professional development.

Being a board member isn’t easy.  In my opinion it’s one of the most challenging community service opportunities a person can undertake.  And, over the past twenty-one years, there’s certainly been no shortage of challenges.  The student population at SCSD #1 has grown by 50% and the demographics of our district have changed dramatically.   The district has dealt with significant changes to the school funding model,  ever-increasing accountability measures, and an erosion of local control.  All things considered, it’s easy to understand why the average tenure for school board members is less than five years.   But if you take the time to get to know Jim, it’s just as easy to understand why he has been a dedicated board member for over two decades.

For the past two and a half years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of other board members and administrators from around the state.  Almost all of them know Jim, and with few exceptions, they all said the same thing somewhere during our conversation.  “I always know where I stand with Jim.”  So as we transition to a newly configured board and Jim transitions to a new chapter in his life, I want Jim to know where I stand; thankful for his many years of service to the children of Sublette County School District #1, and proud to have worked with him.  Godspeed Jim.

Posted in Board of Trustees | 3 Comments

Punched in the Mouth

January will mark the start of the legislative season in Wyoming.  One of the things I’ve learned about being a superintendent in Wyoming is that you pretty much drop whatever you’re doing for the next two months and focus on the vast array of education related legislation and the potential effects.   Undoubtedly, new legislation will change how we do business.  I’m not talking about any legislation in particular, but it happens every year.  It’s become one of the few constants in education.

Effectively adapting to change has become a hallmark of successful educational organizations.  As Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”   And while we do spend a lot of time trying to meet the challenges that result from legislative mandates, we would be short-sighted to let our vision of the future be defined by those mandates.   Most of those mandates are currently focused on accountability.  I’m focused on students.  And in my professional opinion, those are two different things right now.

In today’s world, being adaptive requires an understanding of the trends that will affect  our students.   If you haven’t noticed, their future is changing rapidly.   Jobs in cloud computing, user experience,  search engine optimization, and social media didn’t exist ten years ago.   And that’s just the tech field.  New jobs in elder care, sustainability, and patient advocacy weren’t on our radar either.  Estimates indicate that 60% of the jobs that will be available to our students ten years from now don’t currently exist.  And up to 80% of our students will make significant career changes throughout their lifetime that will require continuing education.  Since the birth of the students in our 12th grade class, entire industries have disappeared, heavy manufacturing has gone overseas, and technology has created and changed the workplace.  The key point is that change is inevitable, but progress is optional.  So we need to change the way we think about preparing our students for students for college and careers.

In his book  Sixteen Trends:  Their Profound Impact on Our Future, author Gary Marx emphasizes the need to focus students on Career Adaptability rather than Career Preparation.  Researcher Mark L. Savickas has identified four key components of Career Adaptability:

  1. Concern:  Students need to develop a future orientation, a sense that it’s important to prepare for tomorrow, the ability to think about their work-life over time.  
  2. Control:  Students need to develop a belief that they are responsible for the creation and construction of their career and a belief in personal responsibility that promotes good decisive decision making.
  3. Curiosity:  The reality of future occupations is one of constant training and retraining.  Developing a personal standard for continuous improvement and life-long learning will be key.
  4. Confidence:  This isn’t about stage presence.  This is about the ability to solve complex problems and the skills necessary to do this in new and unfamiliar ways.

Odd that he didn’t mention standardized test scores.  So what does this mean for SCSD #1?  It means that not everything that counts can be counted.   It means we need to focus on the kind of instruction that teaches our students creativity and innovation,  critical thinking, and information fluency of all types.  It means developing a comfort level with a wide range of technologies.  It means that in the not too distant future, with the exception of reading at a high level, imparting content knowledge will mean less than the development of student metacognition and individual learning strategies.  It means providing less teacher directed instruction and more teacher as activator and facilitator.  It also means that we’re going to have to make a conscious choice as a district.  The current direction of the Wyoming accountability system isn’t going to drive this kind of instruction and focus.  We’re going to have to drive it ourselves.

The reality is that what’s good for kids isn’t always what’s good for accountability.  I have two kids in this school district and speak from personal experience when I say that I’m more concerned as an educator and a parent with their ability to develop academic stamina and solve critical problems than I am about their PAWS score.  And I’m more concerned about them developing academic curiosity and a growth mindset than a 4.0 GPA.  And trust me when I say that neither the PAWS nor the ACT can truly assess those abilities.

Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”.   Four years ago a nation watched as an entire generation of autoworkers with 25 years of experience and a great career plan got punched in the mouth.   It’s incumbent upon us as educators to learn from that lesson and prepare our students for a career environment that has never been more unpredictable.   Doing so means focusing more on our human capital than the state capital.  Even in we get punched in the mouth.

Posted in 21st Century Skills, Career Readiness, Growth Mindset | 1 Comment

Thanksgiving

I’ll never forget the first time I got up close to some of the high alpine lakes and shear granite faces you can find in the Wind River range.   Splendor might be the best word to describe what I saw.   That wasn’t that long ago , and this past week I found myself all but ignoring an incredible sunrise over those same mountains as my mind focused on the tasks I needed to accomplish at work.

And as I thought about how easy it can become to let our busy lives block out the natural wonders that surrounds Pinedale, I realized that it’s just as easy to become dulled to the people in our lives, both personal and professional, who are a part of the multitude of blessings I experience each day.    So as we approach Thanksgiving, I think it’s time to practice some thanksgiving, and recognize the people who make a difference in my life and many others every day:

  • To my family:  Thank you for your never-ending love and support.
  • To my church:  Thank you for providing me with a place to renew my spirit.
  • To our veterans and armed forces:  Thank you for your service and sacrifice to protect our freedom and keep our nation safe.
  • To the SCSD #1 Faculty and Staff:  Thank you for the work you do on behalf of our students.  You are the most dedicated and hard-working group of education professionals with whom I’ve had the privilege to work.
  • To the SCSD #1 Board of Trustees:  Thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve SCSD #1.
  • To Jim Malkowski and Mike McFarland:  Thank you for your service on our Board of Trustees.
  • To the PAC, its staff, and SCSD #1:  Thank you for providing me with a place to renew my body.  Where else can you find a facility of this magnitude in a community our size.
  • To the Sublette BOCES, its staff, and SCSD #1:  Thank you everything you do.  I continue to be amazed at the enrichment opportunities you provide for our community and our students.  They are second to none.
  • To the State of Wyoming:  Thank you for your commitment to funding education.  You are a national leader in this respect.
  • To our first responders:  Thank you to our law enforcement, fire fighters, EMS, search and rescue teams, and emergency management teams for putting your life on the line every day for our safety and well-being.
  • To Sublette County and the Town of Pinedale:  Thank you for the services and recreation opportunities you provide.  Your efforts make this a wonderful place to live, work, and raise a family.
  • To everyone I’ve missed:   I know there are a lot more people who deserve recognition than those I’ve listed here.  There are just too many to list.  Thank you.

I truly appreciate the work of local photographers Dave Bell , Fred Pflughoft and others.  They have a unique ability find and capture the spectacular events occurring in Sublette County that I seem to overlook and under-appreciate all too often.  Their pictures often remind me to I need to be mindful of, and thankful for, what I have right here in Pinedale.   I haven’t always had these things.  And I may not always have them.  Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Posted in Pinedale Aquatic Center, Pinedale Schools | 1 Comment

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Voltaire, and Public Discourse

Hey kids.  It was me.  I was that student.  I was the one who raised my hand and said, “Why do we have to learn this?”  And, “When will I ever use that?”  I think I asked that question in almost every class I have ever taken.  And that includes college.  I still ask it today.   Relevance is an important part of learning.  Students want to know how they will apply what they are learning to their daily lives.   I’m guessing that my high school English teachers would tell you that I was particularly curious (and equally annoying) when it came to finding the relevance in a great American novel or classic literature.  F. Scott Fitzgerald?  Voltaire?  BOOORRING, right!  That stuff’s over a hundred years old. It can’t matter any more…can it?

Actually it can.  From my perspective, the relevance of these authors and others are more timely than ever.   Pick up a newspaper.  Read the news online.  Watch the news on TV.  Just take a moment and look around.   A fantastic learning opportunity is staring you right in the face.  Anywhere and everywhere you look, you can find public discourse; or what now passes for discourse.  Nationally, there’s no shortage of topics.  And locally, we continue to have issues that need input from our constituencies.   All of these issues will affect you as an adult, and you’ll want to effectively voice your opinion on topics that are important to you, both now and in the future.

Schools used to have debate teams to teach students these types of skills, but they have gone by the wayside long ago in most places; mostly due to a lack of student interest and accountability models that reduce the flexibility of scheduling course electives.  My high school didn’t have one and that was nearly (cough) 30 years ago.  That’s too bad.   Students who were on the debate team were prepared to contribute to the public discourse in a positive way.   If you watch the news or our federal government at work, you can see what happens when you let a skill like that wither on the vine (for the record I mean both sides folks, so you can skip trolling me on social media).

So while sophistry may be the current tool of choice for many pundits and politicians, it does little to forward us towards solutions to the critical issues we now face.  So what’s a bright young mind to do without a living, breathing debate coach?   Read of course.  And the classics are a great place to learn a few skills that you can use to constructively contribute to the public discourse.

First, don’t shout or get personal.  Michel de Montaigne, a renowned writer during the French Renaissance said, “He who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak.”  You don’t need to shout over one another.  Besides, there’s plenty of research to show that people listen a whole lot less when you’re rude or shout.  Just for the record, I’m not sure my high school basketball coach was privy to that ground breaking research.

Greek philosopher Cicero said, “When you have no basis for an argument, abuse the plaintiff.”  Kids, that’s 2,100 year-old Greek sarcasm.  It’s also seems to be standard practice for politicians these days.  Don’t be that guy.  Learn how to practice the art of disagreeing without being disagreeable.   Don’t resort to half-truths and misleading statements.  Focus on the facts, not the person with the opposite opinion.

Secondly, have an open mind.  F. Scott Fitzgerald, said that, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”   Take the time to understand the other guy’s position.  Nobody says you have to agree with him or her, but a little empathy goes a long way.  So far, in fact, that the most innovative and the fastest-growing global companies count empathy as one of the top six skills they look for in new hires.

Also, take turns and be polite.  You learned this in kindergarten.  Don’t forget it, even when you strongly disagree.  Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her biography of Voltaire summarized his views by stating, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”   No greater civility was ever embodied in a statement of disagreement.  And much more than simple disagreement, Hall expresses disapproval.  I more than disagree with you; I don’t like what you’re saying and don’t want you to say it, yet I would die before I would deprive of the opportunity to do so.

And lastly, be self-reflective.  Most of the adults reading this will assume I’m talking about “the other guy”.   Before you enter any sort of public debate, consider your motives.  Baltasar Gracián, a 17th century Jesuit priest and writer, said “Don’t take the wrong side of an argument just because your opponent has taken the right side.”  Whether it’s an election or a fight with your buddy, make sure you are arguing in the right way and for the right reasons.  And when it’s all said and done, if you happen to come out on the losing end, do so with dignity.  And here’s a hint, if you’ve followed the wise words of  Montaigne, Cicero, Hall, Voltaire, Fitzgerald, and Gracián, you’re already there.  And here you thought there wasn’t anything worth reading in those dusty old books.

Posted in Educational Psychology, Pinedale Schools | 2 Comments

It’s Not a Race

This past weekend I turned 46.  It didn’t result in the purchase of a new corvette or anything, but I think the lead up to my birthday had some of the hallmarks of a mid-life crisis.   Forty-six certainly isn’t any kind of milestone, but to make a long story short, I wanted a personal challenge and ended up in a race called the Tough Mudder.  I liked the concept behind this race from the beginning because of the Tough Mudder motto:

  • I understand that the Tough Mudder is not a race but a challenge.
  • I put teamwork and camaraderie before my course time.
  • I do not whine…kids whine.
  • I help my fellow Mudders complete the course.
  • I overcome all fears.

And it supports the Wounded Warrior Project.  The course is twelve miles long with 24 wet and muddy, military style obstacles designed by British Special Forces along the way that includes 10,000 volts of electricity coursing through your body at some point.  Challenging in any environment, but our day turned out to be cold and windy.  The first 10 miles were a lot of fun, but this thing got kind of mean in the end and I wound up asking myself, “Why am I doing this?”

The answer of course, is that it puts life into context.  Without some real challenges in life, both physical and mental, you have no point of reference for knowing what you’re truly capable of.  Take  my fellow Tough Mudder in this picture.  In the span of a few short moments, I went from being really proud of myself to being truly humbled when we crossed paths at the finish line.   Talk about gaining some perspective.

I learned a few things about myself over the weekend (and maybe a little something about hypothermia).  Things I hope to carry forward at work.  There’s no shortage of challenges that we face as educators today.  And while they may seem insurmountable, I don’t think they are.  A new accountability system is being developed that sure makes our work feel like a race.  Even the federal grants for schools are called “A Race to the Top”.

But it’s not a race.  It’s a challenge.  A really big one.  If we are going to provide the kind of education that our students deserve, we need…I need, to start putting teamwork ahead of our “course time”.   We need to quit whining (I’ve done my fair share).  And we need to help our students and fellow educators complete the course, no matter how tough or how many obstacles we face.  There’s a lot of uncertainty, and no shortage of fears out there, regarding the future of education, especially for educators.  But what we can do together,  far exceeds what I can do alone.   I guess I’ve always known that.  Sometimes it just takes a Tough Mudder to remind you.

Posted in Growth Mindset, Pinedale Schools | 6 Comments

Houston, We Have A (Testing) Problem

So I flip on the television last weekend with the intention of watching a football game, and immediately get sidetracked by Apollo 13.  What a great movie.  My favorite part is the scene in which mission control is beginning to worry about the rising carbon dioxide levels.   After the oxygen tank explosion, the crew has been forced to abandon the command module and use the lunar module (LM) as a life boat.  Unfortunately the LM consumables weren’t intended to sustain three people for four days.   Normally lithium hydroxide (LiOH) filters would absorb the carbon dioxide from the air and prevent it from reaching dangerous levels, but the canisters onboard the LM couldn’t keep up. The command module had more than enough spare LiOH canisters onboard, but these canisters were square and couldn’t fit into the holes intended for the lunar modules’ round canisters.  This problem led to NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz’s classically sarcastic quote, “Tell me this isn’t a government operation.”   Kranz then proceeds to tell his engineers, “I suggest you gentleman invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole…rapidly.”

As we all know, the NASA engineers did find a way to put a square peg in a round hole.  It’s become an iconic standard for American ingenuity.  Every time I see that scene, I ask myself the same question.  Are we developing the kind of students that can find a way to put a square peg in a round hole?  The truth is…we aren’t.  And here’s why.

Accountability systems drive instructional practices.  As much as we’d all like to believe that we aren’t teaching to the test, we are.  When teacher and principal evaluation is tied to student performance on a specific test, and teachers and principals can lose their jobs because students fail to perform well on that test, you can bet instruction will be customized to improve performance on the test.   In theory, that’s a great concept.  But when your accountability measures (high-stakes tests), only require the most basic of cognitive skills, instruction will become tailored to those skills.  And that’s the kind of student you will produce.  Students with basic cognitive skills.  Let me give you a concrete example.

Below is a sample question from the ACT.  The ACT is designed to assesses students’ academic readiness for college.  11th grade students across the country take this test each year (remember that I said 11th grade students).  Wyoming is in the process of adopting it as their measure of student performance for high schools.  It’s widely respected and scores from this test are used by a large percentage of colleges in the U.S. as an entrance standard.  Questions on this test are also typical of the types of questions you will find on accountability measures being used around the U.S. to demonstrate student knowledge and skill.

For i = the square root of -1, if 3i (2 + 5i) = x + 6i, then x = ?
A.  –15
B.  5
C.  5i
D.  15i
E.  27i

To answer the question above correctly, a student must know the relevant mathematics concept, apply it, and then correctly choose from the supplied answers.  On Bloom’s Taxonomy of cognitive skills, this problem requires students to Remember, Understand, and Apply.  The three lowest levels of thinking skills.  Now let’s take a look at a sample question from the PISA.

A result of global warming is that the ice of some glaciers is melting. Twelve years  after the ice disappears, tiny plants, called lichen, start to grow on the rocks. Each lichen grows approximately in the shape of a circle. The relationship between the diameter of this circle and the age of the lichen can be approximated with the formula:

 
where d represents the diameter of the lichen in millimetres, and t represents the number of years after the ice has disappeared.  Using the formula, calculate the diameter of the lichen, 16 years after the ice disappeared. Show your calculation.

Notice anything different?  This is the kind of questions that other countries give to 15-YEAR OLDS!   It’s also one of the tests given to U.S. students for achievement comparisons with other countries.  Questions like the one above go well beyond Remembering, Understanding, and Applying and require students to use the math in a  real-life situation.  In addition to Remembering, Understanding, and Applying, it engages students in the higher order thinking skills of Analyzing and Evaluating.  Is it any wonder our test results don’t stack up?  It’s the difference between asking a student to tell you what time it is and asking him how to build a watch.

Without intentionally doing so, our accountability tests have reverse-engineered for exactly the kind of results our business and legislative leaders don’t want.  These systems have set the  bar at basic understanding and our teachers are hitting it.  The problem is that basic skills don’t translate well when compared to what’s needed in the real world, and what other countries like Finland are doing in their education systems.  In order to be effective, our accountability measures need to ask the right kinds of questions.  When they do that, teachers will change their instruction to meet that goal and we’ll produce the kind of student that can compete globally and invent ways to put square pegs in round holes.  And until that happens, one thing’s for certain.  We’ll continue to sit squarely on the launch pad while the rest of the world reaches for the stars.  Houston, we have a problem.

Posted in Accountability | 4 Comments

You Know It When You See It

There are a lot of things in life that are hard to quantify.  But like great acting, obscenity, and good manners…you know it when you see it.  The same can be said for change within an organization’s culture.  Quantifying positive culture change within an organization is extremely challenging.  You can take surveys.  You do exit interviews.  You can form focus groups.  But an organization’s culture is more often defined by its spontaneous behavior than anything else.  And if you happened to be at our homecoming game last Friday, you were witnessing positive culture change in the making.

Two years ago this fall, I watched my first Wrangler football game.  I’m pretty sure we won that game, but what I remember more than the game was how empty our stands were, and how quiet the game was.  Parents outnumbered students and there was more discussion about egging than football.   If you want a litmus test on how students feel about their high school, watch them at a sporting event.  I was thinking about that first game as I watched a raucous student section rush the field after our football team drove the length of the field with under three minutes for the win.  When’s the last time that happened at Sunny Korfanta Field?

If I’ve learned anything about positive cultural change, I’ve learned that there’s no easy path to success.  It’s tough.  Negative is easy, it’s lazy.  Criticism is the path of least resistance.  Benjamin Franklin said, “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.”  Positive change requires you to roll up your sleeves and engage in the process of improvement.  It’s about really hard work, taking risks and hiring people with positive energy who refuse to give up, even in the face of the most challenging situations.  And everywhere I looked Friday night, that’s exactly what I saw…and heard.

Let’s start with Ward Wise.  Ward teaches business at the high school and announces the football games.  Ward is one of the most positive people I’ve ever met.  If judgment day includes an accounting of your life to St. Peter at the pearly gates, I want Ward doing the play-by-play.  And how about our new band teacher, Justin Smith?  Who could have bigger shoes to fill at PHS?  But at one point I looked across the stands and wondered to myself who’s that guy whipping our band and student section into a frenzy.  None other than first year teacher Justin Smith.  Let’s not forget about Coach Johnson, his staff, and our football  players.  Get a big lead, give it up, and then band together to score the winning touchdown with just seconds left.  Way to go fellas!  I know times past when Pinedale would have just folded up the tent and closed the circus.  And to all of the green moustached, orange haired lunatics in the stands…there’s no way we pull out a win like that without all your hootin’ and hollerin’.  That’s what a student section at a football game looks like!

Now I’m not saying that Pinedale High School, SCSD #1, or our football team for that matter,  has arrived as an organization.  We haven’t.  We still have a lot of work to do.  I’m just saying that our culture is changing for the better.  Mr. Turcato, the high school staff, our students, and their families deserve all the credit.  They have embraced the work of change and building a positive culture.  They have exchanged their vision for a positive school for the daily grind that success requires.  We have a long way to go to meet our goals, but if that bunch of crazed Wrangler fans is any indication as to the positive energy we possess, there’s no limit to where we can go.  Go Wranglers!

Posted in Educational Psychology | 5 Comments

Shooting the Messenger

In the past, I have bemoaned the new federal guidelines that are creating such a tremendous challenge for our food service staff.  You can read the previous posts here and here.  It seems I’m not alone.  Some high school students in Wisconsin have decided to boycott their school cafeteria over the new regulations, noting that they have no objection to the healthier lunches, it’s the portions sizes that are the problem.  This issue is especially problematic for our athletes.

While I whole-heatedly agree with these students, this is a classic case of shooting the messenger.  There is nothing the food service workers (or their local school board) can do about the regulations.  Maybe the boycott will bring some much needed media attention to the issue and highlight the fact that once again, the USDA painting with too broad of a brush.  Not all schools and not all students are facing the same problems, and sweeping federal legislation is not the solution.

Perhaps it’s too naive to think that we will ever return to the days when local school boards will have the ability to choose the best option for the students in their community regarding issues like this.  The problem for local school officials is that although they don’t have any say in how this type of legislation is created or implemented, they get the blowback (as I’m sure the cafeteria workers in Mukwonago can attest).  And in all reality, we’ve come to accept this fact to some degree.  I guess I’m just asking that when you get mad enough to shoot the messenger, we would appreciate it if you would consider choosing a small caliber.

Posted in School Nutrition | 3 Comments