Many ways to assess school quality
The recent articles regarding standards based education in the Camden/Rockport school district from administrator, teacher and parent perspectives are a welcome and much needed open and public debate about the direction and quality of public education in our community. Educational experts, administrators, practitioners and parents all have unique and valid perspectives on what works and what doesn’t in educating the children of our community. Budget constraints and state mandates are no doubt applying downward pressures on public education. Any public institution can take a quick and perilous dive down in quality without good leadership, clear vision and mission, self-assessment and critical evaluation of teaching practices and parent feedback regarding what is and isn’t working for student learning.
There are many ways to assess the quality of schools, none of which are perfect. SAT scores, state standardized test scores, graduation rates, college acceptances, number of AP courses offered, state and national rankings are the typical objective measures. School climate is a more difficult and subjective quality to measure. I would suggest that an environment which fosters open and collaborative discussions amongst administrators, teachers and parents is critical to cultivating a positive school climate and should be a ‘standard’. However, I have had more than one conversation with many a well-respected teacher that indicates this is not a quality in which our district would ‘meet the standard’. In the same vein, I have met more than one community member that refrains from speaking critically for fear of public recrimination as well. It might also be noted that the lack of differing opinion on the part of teaching staff with regards to the administration’s proposal to drop our school accreditation status at the public meeting was perhaps not because there is no such differing opinion.
At the risk of suffering my own public reprisals for offering an opinion, I would dare to suggest that administration, teaching staff and community come together to examine more transparently, in a professional and respectful manner, the educational decisions that have been made in the last 3 to 5 years with an eye toward determining whether we are on an upward or downward spiral in our schools. What has changed in the last 5 years? Class size (up from 23ish to 27ish), standards (MLR vs. Common Core), standards based reporting, schooner time in middle school, library staffing at the high school, and cultural exchange programs are just a few of the more visible changes that come to mind. And potentially coming soon, proficiency based diplomas and standards based reporting in the high school. Lots of changes in such a short period of time no doubt have some kind of impact.
So getting back to the original point of contention, while there is no doubt that there is a national movement towards “standards based” education and proficiency based diplomas, these educational theories are all based on what seem to be promising educational theories and ideals. But as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. Good implementation of this promising pedagogy requires more than just identifying a report card scale of 1 through 4. It takes a significant effort on the part of teaching staff to run several curricula in a class room on any given, day constantly working each student towards proficiency (and hopefully beyond that to excellence). I have only seen this done well once, and ironically, prior to the implementation of standards based reporting. Marti Wolfe, in a team teaching approach, implemented a ‘flexible grouping’ strategy to teaching mathematics that required formative assessments on a regular basis, moving students up the grouping levels as they achieved proficiency. This was a mighty effort on the part of an excellent teacher and should not be taken for granted.
My current experience from a parent’s perspective with ‘standards based’ education is not particularly positive. As already well pointed out in a previous article, and which has also been my experience, students who achieve ‘proficiency’ quickly seemed to be held back and students who do not meet the standard are given no clear remediation path to proficiency. This is not necessarily a problem with standards based education as much as a problem with implementation. And what happens to eighth-grade students who do not meet the standard? Do they graduate and move on to the high school wholly unprepared? What evaluation system has been put in place to determine the efficacy of this new approach to teaching? Are there any national statistics that show this is an effective learning strategy? We are still in the process of adopting the Common Core standards so is it wise to adopt standards based tools before having actually implemented the Common Core? What are the outcomes of the three-plus years of standards-based reporting in our middle school? Has the failure rate in freshman year gone up or down since implementation? There are many unanswered questions that require a climate of collaborative and open discussions between administrators and teachers about the success or failure of this pilot program before determining how to move forward.
I would urge the school board to start this dialog with faculty and administrators and become wholly informed about standards based practices and the outcomes of the ‘pilot’ program in our middle school sooner than later. You should assess whether or not we have the teaching staff (i.e a balanced teacher student ratio), teacher training and evaluation systems in place to implement well the “standards based” pedagogy that is the buzz word of the educational day. I applaud anyone who is serious and passionate enough to speak out and contribute to the discussions about the quality of education in our schools. We have a Value in Education group keeping us informed of budgetary concerns. Now let’s look to a Quality in Education forum to ensure that the best practices for learning are supported by a fiscally responsible budget.
And if you want to see how we stack up against all other Maine schools, here is a nice little app: kjonline.com/maine_high_school_math_and_reading_sat_scores.html. Perhaps we can opt to be more than proficient. Why not aim to be MSSM!
Maureen Haining is from Rockport.