I have been a part of the public education system as a student and educator for 57 years…or “since the earth cooled.” Never has there been a time that the process of educating children undergone change at this unprecedented pace. AND never has that change been so frenetic. In the typical local school district, the changes come from a variety of sources. A new superintendent steps on to the scene and upends everything their predecessor did. New board members are elected and in their zeal to do good usher in changes of their own. My all-time favorite source for change is the General Assembly who with the best of intentions try to “fix” the educational system in the state every two years. If you think the Ohio General Assembly, local boards of education and superintendents of public schools are in sync on the myriad of changes you would be mistaken. And caught in this crossfire of well-intentioned change agents the students and teachers in Ohio’s public schools.
As a “veteran” (kind way of saying dinosaur) of public education for over 40 years, I can look back over my career at some amazing administrators, teachers and students. These are people who did amazing things in buildings and classrooms. When I look at the landscape of education today I propose four things that should be part of every school district across the state; four areas of focus if you will, that ensure our students are getting what they need to be successful in their future endeavors:
Establish a culture of caring. There is an abundance of research indicating that students will do better in classrooms where they are known by their teachers, where they are accepted by their peers and teachers and where they know they are safe. Schools that have established a network of adult advisors that simply take the time to “know” the student and are advocates for that child will see a rise in levels of academic achievement. Students MUST feel a real connection to the people in the school if they are to thrive as learners. Particularly as students get to high school and they begin to assert their independence from parents, they need other adults who can positively impact their lives. People they can trust to share their fears, anxieties and future plans. Critical to this idea of positive culture are “caring” adults. As a school leader I certainly looked at the college transcripts of potential teachers I hired but I will take a teacher with a lower GPA who truly cares about kids and someone I believe will invest themselves in the lives of students.
Parent Education. Amazingly in our society we force people who want to drive a car to go through a licensing and examination process. When it comes to parenting, there’s no license required and when that little “bundle of joy” comes into our home there is no instruction manual to follow. Even the most well-meaning of parents can feel overwhelmed with how to manage their kid’s time. Students, even more so than adults, need to have a balanced life. They need to understand there is a time to learn, a time to play, a time to be with family and a time to simply relax. Developmental specialist, Dr. Madeline Levine states “We’ve robbed kids at each stage of childhood and adolescence of tasks that belong in that particular stage [of development]. She goes on to say “You can’t push kids outside their developmental zone and expect them to learn.
You want to push them toward the edge, but not over it.” And while schools cannot mandate parent training they can look for creative ways to expose all parents to “high yield” child-rearing strategies. While this is a wonderful proposal it can be short-circuited by putting a well-educated person in front of parents who has never raised a child of their own. Make certain “parent education” in your district is being delivered by a person who has been a successful parent.
A Strong Emphasis on Reading, Writing and Speaking. My bias always leans toward the monumental importance of being exposed to a rigorous program of reading, writing and speaking. The three disciplines are interminably linked and ALL subsequent learning in other core areas of education rely on a student’s ability to understand the written word and the ability to accurately and precisely communicate their own thoughts and ideas in both written and spoken form. Instruction in these disciplines MUST be taught concurrently. Research over the past ten years has shown what most good English teachers already knew: reading, speaking and writing are interdependent; one cannot exist without the other two. Researchers found when children read extensively they become better writers. Reading a variety of genres helps them learn text structures and language which they can then transfer into their own writing. A major portion of what students learn while in school comes from what we read either in print form or online. Writing is the act of transmitting knowledge in print or electronically. What we read helps shape the information we share in our writing. We must also be able to clearly articulate those ideas in spoken language that can be understood by a variety of audiences. Schools must place a premium on the time and resources dedicated to establishing a rigorous language arts program beginning with the youngest learners through 12th grade.
Alternative Assessments. Our infatuation with standardized testing has reached the level of a statewide Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I am not downplaying the importance of data in helping us adjust our instructional practice. I am questioning the sanity of spending time and precious resources on a battery of assessments that produce data that becomes available after the next school year is underway (i.e. our infamous and ever-morphing state report card). The mandated standardized tests we give in schools only show what “some” kids know, but they leave out a number of students who aren’t able to showcase their strengths because of the very nature of our testing program. Schools must be allowed to have a balanced approach to assessment. The assessments must include some standardized testing for the purpose of public (not legislative) accountability along with alternative forms of assessment such as the creation of products or producing an entire portfolio of work over time. Project-based learning/Problem-based learning (PBL) is one approach that could be used in lieu of another standardized test. Unfortunately the very centers of the PBL approach (Industrial Arts, Family and Consumer Science and even Vocational Agriculture) have been gutted from school curriculum in order to maximize time in the core areas. Students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem or challenge. Problem-based learning offers the possibility of addressing many of the skills considered 21st Century essentials while allowing education to ease away from the standardized testing frenzy. PBL is student centered while standardized assessments tend to be school-centered OR in Ohio legislatively-centered.
This list I’ve offered won’t find its way into any upcoming legislation in this 133rd General Assembly. It will likely not be embraced by the think tanks across the state that are enamored with the latest greatest technological gadgets and gizmos; however I firmly believe it would bring a sense of balance back to what is occurring in our districts across the state. As educators of these four things become the “drivers” in what we do in schools it will accomplish one significant and single purpose: it puts student needs first. It proposes to create an environment at home and in school where students can thrive and it proposes a focus on the crucial literacy skills. Finally it suggests a sane approach to assessment. There is a better way to “do school” and it begins with a focus on why schools exist….our students!
Author: Dr. Daniel Kaffenbarger, Superintendent