Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Student success: Two ends of one road

There are two significant ends of a continuum that as a Superintendent I have yet to understand how to embrace.

On one end of the continuum are the good things we do as a district. I want to promote these good things. I want to give our community confidence that we are helping students and that we are making a difference in their lives.

The most recent example comes to us courtesy of the just released Michigan Merit Exam scores. Novi High School has among the highest scores in the state. We should be proud of that fact. Many of our students demonstrate a high level of achievement and the majority of our students are in the advanced and proficient categories.

When results like these are released, districts send out press releases concentrating on the positives. Local newspapers promote these achievement like here and here and here and here. The state even gets into the act with press releases promoting the upward trends.

All this is done with the best of intent. We want the public to have confidence that schools are doing the job.

But there is an opposite end of that continuum. While the majority of the students in Novi do exceptionally well, the truth is there are students that we have yet to figure out how to help. We don't like to talk about it in public because it is uncomfortable, but it is true.

So, often, we hide behind composite scores and we talk about "as a group" or "on the whole" our students are doing well. That way we - the state and districts - can report that things are going well without having to embrace or publicly discuss the things that are not going well.

But for certain students in our districts and in our schools things are not going well.

So how can I - the Superintendent - embrace the two ends of this continuum?

First, celebrate success.

Honor the work that our teachers do and celebrate the success of our students.

Second, don't hide the fact that we have some students who struggle.

When we try to hide those numbers we unintentionally devalue the students in those positions. We need to communicate clearly that we honor those students as much as we honor those that achieve at a high level. Additionally, we need to communicate that we will find ways to support and help those students succeed.

Third, recognize that some of the success that we have in school districts can be traced not only to our staff but also to our parents and community. Many of our students are successful because our parents provide the environment and support they need to be successful. The scores that are reported reflect, in some way, the efforts of our parents and community. As a district we have to be humble and grateful for the support that we receive.

Finally, as a district we need to focus on each student. Every student - whether he or she is the student who excels or the student who struggles - deserves to be in a challenging instructional environment. We cannot let those students who are successful just coast because they already know the curriculum just as we cannot let the students who struggle sink because they take extra time and effort.

Every student is important and deserves to be challenged.

So, what is a Superintendent to do? How can I celebrate the good we do while at the same time clearly express that the students who struggle are important and that we have plans to help them succeed?  

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

FISA courts, national security, and student testing: What's the connection?

What follows may be a stretch but hang with me. I think there is a connection.

Recently on NPR author Tim Weiner was interviewed about our national security program, the FISA court, and the recently revealed government surveillance program.

While interesting, none of what he said really related to my world until he said the following:

"Our capacity to collect (information) far exceeds our capacity to analyze and act."

Bells and whistles went off in my head. This is part of the problem in American education. Everyone it seems wants to collect information. However, collecting information is not the most important part of what we do. The critical act for us is analyzing information, figuring out what the information is telling us.

In our district we have tried to streamline the information that we collect. We do benchmark assessments with the NWEA twice a year only. Aside from state assessments we try to limit other more formal assessments. The informal classroom based assessments are meant to provide more timely, focused information.

Some of the teachers, and most likely the principals, in my district might argue, some rather passionately, that we test students too much. In the first month of school we give both the NWEA and the MEAP (state required) assessments. We also administer the Fountas and Pinnell assessments. Throughout the year we also administer unit pre/post-tests, end of course or end of semester exams. We administer the MME (state required) assessments to 11th grade students that includes the ACT assessment. We also use the EXPLORE and PLAN assessments with our 9th and 10th grade students.

While that seems like a lot of assessment, the total time for the standardized assessments is less than 2% of student hours over the course of a year. Honestly, we use about the same amount of time lining up students at the end of the day.

I would not disagree that the best use of classroom instructional time is for instruction. However, an important component of effective instruction is understanding what students know and can do. That requires assessment. So at some level assessment needs to be given some time to occur over the course of the year.

The question is, as Mr. Weiner so eloquently put it, do we have the capacity to analyze and act?

I believe we have the capacity. In the case of education, an additional question is do we have the will?

I know that we have teachers and administrators who are willing to and who have the ability to look at data and see what is going on in the life of a child. \

But sometimes it is easier to rely on our hunches or our informal observations or our experience with a child. I would not disagree that those are important and valuable pieces of information. But the information we can gather from more formal assessments is also valuable. It gives us another perspective that can either help us confirm or reject what our more informal data collection has revealed.

Teaching, it has been said, is both art and science. We need to remember that as we try to sort through the data that we collect on our students. We cannot focus on the data to the exclusion of things we see in the classroom. We cannot focus on our classroom experience to the exclusion of what more standardized assessments tell us.

We must be better than those who collect data for national surveillance. They have become quite adept at collecting data. We have traveled a piece of that road. Now it is time to make sure that we are also prepared to analyze and use the data to help students learn.

Monday, June 10, 2013

I am a number, but that doesn't tell the story

I'm a number.

I have an age - 56.

I have a weight - 212.4. That's still high but down from what it was last summer. (It will be down later this summer. Check back for updates.)

I have a waist - 34. At least I tell myself that it's 34. I'd like it to be a 32 but right now it is probably more like a 36.

I have a height - 6'1".

I have a blood pressure - 110/60.

I have a pulse rate - 65 while resting.

I had an ACT test score - 28 - although I am a little unsure how long that is really good for.

I have a shoe size - 11. Although with some shoes I need a half size bigger and with others I need a half size smaller. Don't ask me why - I can't explain it.

There is a number for almost any part of me.

One might argue that I could be defined by my numbers. They, in theory, tell you how healthy I am, how fast I am, how smart I am.

These days there are people who want to use numbers to define our schools. Match a test score with a teacher and whiz-bang you have a number that will tell you if that teacher is doing a good job.

I happen to believe that numbers are a good thing.

But I think numbers are being asked to do things that they cannot do.

Numbers can give you information but they can't give you answers.

People give answers. People figure things out.

So while we have a lot of numbers with schools what we are missing are answers.

Numbers can't define schools anymore than numbers can define me.

Numbers can describe me. They can identify very specific parts of me. But numbers don't tell the whole story.

Numbers can't tell you about why I laugh or smile.

Numbers can't tell you what I care passionately about or what I love to read.

Numbers can't tell you why I love baseball or why I am so bad at golf.

But numbers are easy to find.

So sometimes we invest numbers with magical powers that they do not have.

Numbers give information but people give answers.

So in my school district we are forced to use numbers to evaluate teachers. And we will.

But we will also ask teachers what they know about the numbers. What do the numbers say?

I am not looking for numbers to give me an answer.

I am looking for a teacher, a principal, a person to give me an answer.

The numbers might be able to tell me what a student scored. A teacher will be able to tell me what it means. A principal will be able to help me understand.