Monday, December 8, 2008

Judy Jeffrey from the High School Summit

Blogging from the 5th Iowa High School Summit.

Judy Jeffrey led off in a very somber mood. It soon became obvious why.

Jeffrey brought up two studies, the 1996 Carnegie/NASSP report (which she said "unleashed a powerful tool of reform) and the 2002 Foundation for Change's "Focusing on Iowa high schools. She bulleted the suggestions detailed in the reports and gave her interpretations on how we were doing. It was clear she thought we were on the right track, be in the mandatory core curriculum (check), each student having an individualized education plan (8th grade transition -- check), the emphasis on continuous improvement (check), the clear educational agenda (check again), and so on.

Then she showed the trajectories. High schools remained stagnant again in reading and math, while 4th and 8th grade continue to climb. And while some progress has been made in the achievement gap, the progress is not as fast as it needs to be.

Something is not computing.

Iowa has taken a far more aggressive pitch with high school reform than middle school or elementary. We've invested time and resources heavily there. And, you could hear the disbelief in Jeffrey's voice. There was a point in her keynote when she said "If anyone has any ideas, I'll be around these two days... come and talk to me."

There is something truly difficult here. It isn't that the test scores are stagnant, though (that can be fixed). It is the perception that high schools are making the changes outlined in the Iowa Core Curriculum.

This is a wide stroke to paint, but in general, you ask any teacher, principal, or superintendent, they would say "We are in good shape". There is this belief that they are ahead of the curve of the Iowa Core. It is Lake Woebegon... no one feels they are behind the curve.

When there is no perception that anything instructionally is wrong, there is no chance for change.

Jeffrey mentioned her visit to a New Tech school in Austin, Texas, which the DE is using as a model of where they would like to go with Iowa high schools. In her visit, there were several things that stood out:

  1. Administrators and teacher were completely facilitators... there wasn't a single lecture-type lesson in Jeffrey's visit in any classroom.
  2. Students were responsible for their own learning. She mentioned the collaborative work groups, and the fact that team members could "fire" a team member if they weren't pulling their weight, and those members would be responsible for doing everything themselves. She also said that this rarely happened as students understood the responsibility involved.
  3. Along with #2, students were responsible for determining what they didn't know, and then asking for a "workshop" to teach them. In this respect, if a student knew how to do citations, let's say, that student wouldn't have to sit through an informational lecture on how to do them.
  4. The school had voluntary Saturday school, where both teachers and students came and worked, without financial incentive or being forced to. The culture of the school was one where they were eager to spend their free time there.
  5. And, the school required rigorous work, including 2 years of engineering, 12 hours of college credit, 50 hours of community service, and a senior internship to graduate.

I haven't seen New Tech high schools. It appears they are magnet schools, and much like UNI's Price Lab school, they have opportunities for innovation that might not be truly the same as the circumstances of Iowa's schools. But I do know this: Iowa's schools don't do these things. Or as I'd imagine the conversation going, "Well... we aren't in that good of shape."

This is exactly what Jeffrey must do. She must get schools beyond the generic buzzwords that schools can latch on to. "Yes, we have a rigorous curriculum." "Yes, we have engaging classrooms." "Yes, we conduct formative assessment and use sound teaching for understanding principles".

No, we aren't in that good of shape.

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