Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Simplify "Reform"

This is an e-mail I wrote to the legislator from my district in Minnesota after getting into a discussion on Twitter regarding education reform.


Sorry this took so long to get to you, but it has been a crazy couple of days at school.  I am not sure this is what you were looking for, but this is my thoughts on strengthening our education system in Minnesota.

Most of what I believe I have gotten from Mike Schmoker, Doug Reeves, and Rick DuFour - so I don' t claim to have come up with any of this on my own, but I do believe strongly in the principles and have worked to implement these in the districts (Farmington and now Owatonna) I have worked in over the past six years.

We have over complicated "education reform".  I learned along time ago - mostly in coaching - that when I focused on the essentials my teams and students did better.  As I was asked to do more (added initiatives) or became distracted with things that were not essential my players and students performed worse.

If we truly want to improve education we must focus on the essentials.  I contend those are not that hard to figure out.  We know the number one factor in student achievement is instruction.  Teaching has six to ten times as much impact on achievement as all other factors.  So if we want to impact the achievement of all students we need to improve instruction.

Here is what I think needs to happen to improve instruction:

A) Each district needs to identify a coherent curriculum based on state standards that is actually taught.  These power standards should be about 1/3 to 1/2 of the state standards.  This would allow these standards to be taught in adequate depth with adequate time for reading, writing, and discussion arounds essential topics.  Instead of simply covering standards to get them all done, students would be able to apply their learning.  Teachers would also have time to do frequent checks for understanding (formative assessments) and react to student needs immediately.

B) Implement structurally sounds lessons.  These lessons would involve 1) teacher modeling -where the teacher explicitly thinks out loud so students can hear how an expert in the subject thinks while working with the content.  This is a significant departure from lecture.  2) there would be intervals where the students are allowed to practice or apply what has been taught while the teacher is there to guide and observe (guided practice).  This would typically be done in pairs or small groups.  3) Throughout all of this there would be forms of checking for understanding.  This on-going check for understanding allows the teacher to see what needs to be clarified, who has mastered who has not, when instruction needs to slow down, and when it can speed up.  Teachers can react to student needs immediately.

C) There needs to be more authentic literacy within our schools.  Authentic literacy is purposeful reading, writing, and talking.  This is the key to learning both content and thinking skills.

D) The above suggestions are much more effective if teachers work in teams. This type of team work - work focused on student learning - is commonly called a PLC.  PLCs work is centered on four questions 1) what do want students to learn (power standards) 2) how will we know if they have learned it (check for understanding/formative assessment) 3) what will we do if they don't learn it 4) what will we do if they have already mastered it.

Does this sound too simple?  I don't think so.  Jim Collins found the "essence of profound insight into organization improvement is simplicity.  If priorities are not simplified and clarified they are at the mercy of the next new thing.  This is what has happened in education.

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