Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Professional Learning Communities at School Early Release Days Since the start of the school year, the teachers in Middlesboro Independent School District have met on Wednesday afternoons every two weeks to participate in Professional Learning Communities. Professional Learning Communities have become quite commonplace in schools across the state in response to the more rigorous standards set by the state. Teachers meet in groups (PLCs) that are focused on the achievement of students in certain grade levels or in certain content areas (like math). During these meetings teachers review individual student work and consider different approaches to increase the learning of their students. They also look at results from different types of assessments to make sure that what they are teaching fits the curriculum that is determined by the state through academic standards. Although Kentucky no longer follows the requirements of No Child Left Behind, in order to opt out, Kentucky had to develop a state-wide approach that met or exceeded the requirements of the federal program. The state system, called Unbridled Learning, has required many new changes in Kentucky schools. There are new standards, new types of assessment, a focus on college/career readiness, and required teacher networks that teachers must attend regularly. Middlesboro teachers must focus on individual achievement, how their students’ growth compares with schools state-wide, how achievement within different student groups compares, whether their students meet college/career readiness targets set by the state, and increasing graduation rate. The time spent in PLCs has given teachers a chance to complete the work that is necessary for these new challenges to be met. This work will continue throughout this school year but next year the time scheduled for these groups will change. In order to respond to parents concerns about meetings during the school day, next year Middlesboro will not have early release days but they will continue with PLCs. A committee of teachers will be established to determine a schedule for PLC work next year.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Testing Overload

Someone finally did it! In fact, that someone is a longtime colleague of mine who had the courage and persistence to stand up against a system that is just not working. Everyone knows that NCLB (No Child Left Behind) is a model of accountability that is mandated by the federal government to ensure that all students are learning at appropriate academic levels. However, sometimes good intentions can lead to unexpected results. When NCLB began, all the states started developing state assessments that could be used as "measuring sticks" to track student academic growth. As might be expected, the level of difficulty of those tests varied dramatically from state to state. Districts all continued to test using norm reference tests which compared our students to students nationally, not just statewide, like the state assessments. Additionally, districts continued to have students take the PLAN, EXPLORE, and ACT to determine college readiness. Selected grades are also asked to participate in the NAEP which is used to determine how our students fare nationally and even internationally. Our students are simply on testing overload.

So, what can we do about this concern? We can do what my colleague did. First we have to look at results to see what they tell us. Frankly, what they say is that we are giving too many tests that really don't help prepare our students for college readiness or the world of work. When we look at our state assessments, many of our students are scoring proficient or distinguished. When we look at the results of the same students on tests like the ACT, we see that our students are not performing as well and do not demonstrate their college/work readiness. So, which testing is more important? I would suggest that we need to seriously consider doing what my colleague did - get a waiver from the Department of Education to drop the state assessments and focus on the nationally normed and college/work readiness assessments. We are simply spending too much time on testing which takes away from valueable learning time. Our students lose their focus to do well on testing when they are faced with the overload of current assessments. Let's make our assessments something valueable. There are two types of assessment we should use: formative which is used by the teacher to determine what students are ready to learn, and summative which is a final measure of what students can demonstrate they have learned. We can do this without the state assessments. They are just more tests that our students are currently required to take. Unless state assessments can be aligned with national standards, they are unecessary and just add to our students' burden of too much testing.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Whitewater Tubing

Do you remember when you were little and your parents took you "tubing" on the river or lake? Nothing was more fun than floating on a cushion of air while the hot sun warmed your face and the cool water rippled over your hands and feet. There is nothing quite as relaxing. Sometimes floating on the river could rapidly change. One minute you would be blissfully floating and the next minute you would hit rapids (whitewater) that made you adjust your position and your body for potential hazards. A moment of bliss could rapidly turn into a tense, but exhilarating, ride.

When I think about what's happening in our world, society, and schools, I realize that we are all in the middle of challenging whitewater. Our country has a long history of being the world leader in business, education, and quality of life. Suddenly that is changing. Other countries are challenging us. Our United States economy is dependent upon countries who used to emulate us. Our business and industries are choosing to outsource their workforce. Our children, who had tremendous opportunities if they got a high school diploma, no longer are finding jobs in local companies because the companies are either not there or choose to outsource their work.

Leaders in our nation, states, and local communities are looking for answers to this dilemma and the first answer that comes to mind is re-tooling schools. I think most educators would agree that changes must be made. The difficulty lies in the process. When you were floating on that inner tube and saw turbulence on the horizon, you realized that you had to make changes. You were willing to make changes. You were extremely pressured to make changes. Maybe you needed to increase the size of the inner tube. Maybe you needed to reconfigure it. Maybe you needed to exchange it for a bigger and better one. All of these are possible solutions. Ones that everyone might consider. The difficulty lies not in the vision or goal. The difficulty is trying to inflate, reconfigure, or change something while you are actually riding it - in a whirl of fast moving whitewater where you are perilously close to falling in the river at any moment.

I really think that this is what our teachers face on a daily basis. Most know that we need to change our way of teaching. We need to reach the students who have been unreachable before. We need to decrease the gaps of learning between our diverse students. We need to make our schools inviting and we need to offer so much more than just the academic growth. That is non-negotiable anymore. I think our teachers are willing. They want their students to be successful. Schools just have to find a way through the whitewater that is engulfing them. Everyone must get in the river with them. We need everyone - parents, community, elected officials, and government working togther to make this work. We need to work as a team because there is more whitewater around the bend.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Race to the Top - Just Keep Running

Kentucky recently lost out on the second round of Race to the Top funding offered by the Department of Education. Two times our state has been a finalist only to lose the final funding award. Compounding the loss is that our state has directed our education system to begin a systemic overhaul that includes a number of major changes in standards, assessments, and teacher evaluation. It was the intent of the Kentucky Department of Education to utilize Race to the Top funds to make these changes happen. Instead they are saddled with the prospect of reducing their own staff and furloughing staff who are fortunate to keep their jobs. Now, they are faced with the dilemma of asking the Kentucky General Assembly to fully fund Senate Bill 1 which includes all these changes and, with the continuting economic downfall, the chances of that happening are slim.

So, given our circumstances, what are we to do? My suggestion is that we just keep running - moving forward. One of the benefits of Senate Bill 1 and the Race to the Top Grant submission is that our state education leaders have taken time to seriously look at our current educational system, to analyze its strengths and weaknesses, and to develop a plan of action that they are confident will lead us to better student performance. While our schools cannot be responsible for the state-wide components of this plan, we can implement the ideas that are achieveable at a classroom level. We can implement Professional Learning Communities. We can facilitate conversations and learning for our staff. At the building and classroom level we have teachers who have the skills and expertise to examine areas of concern and find ways to address them. Working in groups we can learn collectively how to improve student learning. We can begin to implement research based interventions that we have simply not used on a building-wide basis. We have always had teachers who go that "extra mile" but now we have societal pressures that will encourage all teachers to do whatever it takes to increase student performance. We can and will make this happen.

So, we didn't get Race to the Top dollars. It does not change the reality for our schools. We still must change and learn new strategies that will help us teach more diverse learners. We must be responsible for our students and I know that our teachers are ready to do just that. Race to the Top simply defined our direction. Now it is up to us to put on our running shoes. We still plan on racing to the top and making our students winners in the 21st century.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Uncommon Common Sense

Every one can remember a time when they were succesful and achieved something important to them. All of us have moments of joy or contentment when we feel a sense of accomplishment. At other times, we wonder why things just didn't happen as we envisioned. How we perform in school or in our career can be viewed in the same way. When I think back to moments of success in my life, I realize that there are some real actions that can impact my success. It is these uncommon common sense ideas that I want to share today. In order to be a success in school (or life), it is important that you:

1. Show Up - You cannot learn or be successful at anything unless you show up at school or at your job. You can be the smartest person around but being smart without knowledge will not get you far. I cannot stress enough the importance of showing up every day. If you practice showing up, it becomes a habit - one that will benefit you greatly throughout life. Who wants to hire or rely upon someone who is not dependable. People who are successful in life do not get that way from sleeping in or skipping work to go to the lake for the day.

2. Play to Win - Whatever you do, don't settle for anything less than your best effort. Your time and effort is too valuable for you to waste it if you are not going to do your best. Too often people drift through life and just "settle" for the least they can do and get by. Yes, you may get by but where will that lead you - to a life of always just settling for less. I wouldn't wish that on anyone.

3. Learn from Failure - This is the best advice I have ever received. I once heard an olympic athlete speak who said that he learned to be the best by analzying his mistakes and readjusting. Failure is a learning tool. If you score low on an exam, ask yourself why and then start learning what you need to know so that you can pass. Don't allow failure to become your mantra for life. View failure not as a stopping point but as a new beginning. People who cannot rebound from failure are saddled with a burden that will negatively impact their lives. Everyone has failed and those who become successful learn to channel the failure so that they learn from their mistakes and choose to go another direction where they can succeed.

4. Luck is not Enough - While I believe in luck, I also believe that those who are prepared when opportunity knocks are the "luckiest" people I know. Luck alone cannot get you through life. There are only a miniscule number of lottery winners so the best option is to make sure you have positioned yourself in the right place with the right knowledge in hand when luck shows up. Also, in case luck doesn't show up, I find that persistence will support you even more than luck.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Growing Benefits

Whenever it starts turning warm outside, I find myself flipping through different books and researching on various websites for information about gardens. While I love all kinds of trees and flowering plants, the type of garden that brings me most satisfaction is the vegetable garden.

I remember the first garden I planted. I was a “city” girl and never actually thought about where vegetables came from. I had married into a farming family that grew all their fruits and vegetables and raised all their meats as well. My father-in-law took a lot of pleasure in my initial reaction to digging a garden spot. It was not a good reaction. However, after the planting was completed and all the seeds sprouted and became plants, I became hooked. There is something so fulfilling seeing those neat, tidy rows of plants growing right where you planted them. Sure, you had to weed them, water them, and fertilize them, but the results were fantastic. Unless there was some sort of poison resistant bug invasion, you were rewarded with wonderful tasting vegetables that you could eat or preserve for later in the cold winter months.

I think I liked gardening so much because it allowed me a sense of accomplishment. I started out as a middle school teacher (grades 7 – 9) and there were days that I wondered if I had accomplished anything at all. I liked my students and they liked me. I enjoyed coming to school everyday and I truly wanted my students to be successful. I was a resource teacher and my students were often viewed as “bottom of the barrel” kids. They were in school filling their time until they could drop out. I had thirty students (ages 12 – 16) and all were in my class at least four hours a day. I tried everything I could think of to help them learn. At that time schools did not separate students by handicapping conditions so I had students who were FMD, students who were learning disabled, and students who were slow learners. I had emotionally disturbed students and I even had one gifted student who was placed in my class because no one wanted him in their class. They were a real mixed group but I really connected with them and did everything I could to teach them english, spelling, math, science, and social studies. I soon found out that many of them were poor readers so reading was added to the list as well.

As a first year teacher, I soon found out that I didn’t know what I needed to know to teach these students. So, I spent time trying to learn “on-the-job” from whatever resource I could find. And, eventually, as that first year ended and the second one began, I continuously added knowledge and skills to my teaching arsenal so that I could help these students learn. But it was not easy. It wasn’t like planting seeds. These students didn’t stay where I placed them. They didn’t respond to my watering and care like my plants did and they definitely didn’t always bear fruit, even after the most intensive care.

So, working in the garden became my therapy. I was in full control there. I could predict, with fairly certain accuracy, how my plants would react. In fact, it was not at all like teaching. Don’t you wish it was?

I know that all of you have stories just like mine to share. None of us starts out as a master teacher. Many work years to get to that point and everyone can make it. It is hard work being a teacher. Much harder than most people realize. When my summer garden was over, I could till the ground under and wait for next year knowing that it would bring a fresh start. Of course, teachers start a new year each year as well but the fruits of our labors, our students, are still in our school. We see them each year until they graduate, move, or dropout. And if they do dropout, we ask ourselves, “Could I have made a difference in this child if I had done something different?’

Teaching is hard work. I hope that you find something, whether it’s gardening, fishing, woodwork, cooking, etc. that you can use as your therapy. Because with gardening, it is very nice to look at what you have accomplished from beginning to end. You can see the results of your labor. I hope that all of you will come to the graduation this June 4th to see the fruits of your labor because when that child walks across the stage it is because of his/her pre-school, kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10, 11th, 12th grade teacher. It takes all of us to grow a "graduation garden".

Monday, February 15, 2010

School Colors Make a Difference

It sounds sort of silly to say that school colors make a difference but, after a recent refinishing of our high school gym floor, I was amazed at how many people remarked that they were so thrilled to see that we had painted the gym floor with the "orginal gold" color. I even had people stop me on the street to make similar comments. It made me start thinking about why something as simple as a hue change from yellow to gold would mean so much to someone.

I guess the simple answer is that school, especially middle and high school, are defining moments in our lives. When we start school we are all pretty much reflections of our parents and their guidance. It is at school that we start seeing that not everyone is like us and that there are different personality, choices, and viewpoints. At school we start on a journey of discoving who we are, individually, and making life decisons that affect our entire life. We make choices about career, friends, and sometimes even meet the person that becomes our life-long partner.

In school we learn that life is not always fair, that you don't always win, and that others can be cruel. We also learn that winning is not everything and that we can show compassion and caring for those who are different than us - those who may be not as smart, not as athletic, not as popular, but still worthwhile human beings.

So, I guess it is natural that we develop deep ties with the environment (school) that serves as the backdrop for so many of our growing-up events. That is why school colors and mascots take on a greater importance. They remind us of a time when we were on the road to becoming an adult. Our school memories are of the worst and best times of our lives.

When I first came to Middlesboro, I was so excited to hear that we were the Jackets. After all, I was also a Jacket when I went to high school. It was not the same school but the symbolism remains. And I have the same memories of my school days as well. I guess school colors and mascots do make a difference.

About Me

Dr. Rita Cook, Superintendent of Middlesboro Independent School District, has over 35 years of experience in education. She has taught all grade levels and been an administrator for the last 22 years.