Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Time to Learn

Much debate has taken place in recent weeks about school time and the school calendar in Lunenburg County. Decisions have been made from the top-down with little to no input from school administrators, teachers, students, parents or community citizens. I had the opportunity to attend last night's school board meeting and listen to the proposed calendar for 2011-12 (among other issues) and the justifications provided for the changes. After listening to what was shared by the superintendent and hearing concerned parents speak up during public participation with their concerns about the additional 15 minutes for each school day on a permanent basis (currently spending a month with an addition 30 minutes daily), I had to share what was on my mind.

All of the school board members know me, but I had never met the Superintendent prior to last night's meeting. I began with my name and address as per the protocol to speak during the public participation forum. I then shared my concerns that policymakers have become prisoners of time. Too often the focus is on extending the calendar beyond the required 180 days of instruction or adding time to each school day, but that is missing the mark. What students (and teachers) really need is not the "gift of time" the superintendent requested but rather more quality, engaging, enriching learning opportunities during that time. I firmly believe the current after-school programs and the 21st Century Community Learning Centers have been an effective approach towards this goal. They are optional for all students, strongly encouraged for some students, have data which justifies implementation. Adding 15 minutes to the school day is not likely to improve academic achievement.

Research shows that merely adding more of the same to the school day will not improve student outcomes. In fact, "more of the same" is likely to further disengage students who are most at risk for dropping out of school. (This is in direct opposition to the superintendent's stated claim that more time with students will lower the drop-out rate and better prepare them for the 21st century.) Data from 73 afterschool programs concludes that students have opportunities to explore interests, learn real world skills, solve problems, develop leadership and teamwork skills, connect with adult role models, improve academic skills in core subject areas, and raise their self-esteem.

There is a vast difference between allocated time (time on school calendar) and academic learning time (time students are working on rigorous tasks at the appropriate level of difficulty for them) which is further complicated by student engagement (time students are actually paying attention). The crude policy solutions of more school days and longer days do not even begin to touch the deeper truth that we have to improve the quality of this academic learning time. I see danger in extending the school day as proposed for the 2011-12 calendar, when what we really need is to imaginatively expand learning opportunities for all students.

One final thought from around the world: US initiatives include extended school day, increased homework, more high-stakes testing. The underlying assumption is that this will produce smarter, better-prepared students. The reality is that Finland students only spend about 600 hours in classrooms and are ranked among the highest in international math and reading test scores. US students on the other hand spend about 1100 hours (almost twice as much TIME) with scores that are 10-20% lower than Finnish students of the same age. It would appear that to fix school time requires more than time!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Squelching Freedom of Speech results in Sentiments going Subversive or worse yet, Apathy will abound!

Anyone who knows me knows that I am Miss Americana USA to the core - I'd bleed red, white and blue if that were actually possible. People fought and died for the freedoms we enjoy - freedoms confirmed for generations thanks to the United States Constitution. I'm going to spare you the lesson in American government, but had to set the stage for this very opinionated commentary. This is actually the first of several that I have in mind to share. My sole purpose is awareness that promotes activism. People need to exercise their constitutional rights more often when situations are high-stakes.

I think most people would agree that educating today's youth for tomorrow's challenges is high-stakes. School reform tends to run in cycles, with research studies theorizing that this trend or the other is the next best thing to "fix" public PK-12 classrooms in the name of student achievement and producing 21st Century learners who are capable leaders. There was the block scheduling movement, then research on best practices suggested standards-based assessment would produce better results, and now research highlights teacher efficacy (merit based pay, performance evaluations, etc.). Change is not a bad word. Structural change is not enough to change for the better though. When educational leaders implement change without giving all stakeholders a voice in the process, the necessity and validity of the change deserve to be questioned.

Yet, people are squelched if they voice concern, or worse yet, bullied and intimidated into believing (FALSELY MIND YOU) that there will be negative repercussions for exercising freedom of speech to share a dissenting opinion. Students fear suspension. Teachers fear termination. What type of leaders ignore the very people that stand to benefit or suffer from the decisions that are being made? Elected officials are representatives of the people. Therefore, school board members should be held accountable for decisions made that do not reflect the best interests of the people, much less the "best practices." I can give you all sorts of research to convince you of my opinions, but that doesn't mean I am any more or less valid in my opinions than say, a superintendent who has proposed calendar changes that are adopted by said elected officials on the local governing school board.

I may not work in the local school system these days but I am still fairly attuned to what is going on in the classrooms and school-community relations in general. When significant decisions are being made, I personally think it is more appropriate to propose several alternatives and invite public input before a final conclusion is rendered. Furthermore, it is my humble opinion that "more of the same" does not accomplish anything productive. If parents, students, and teachers do not voice their opinions (even if not matching mine), then they must understand that silence is agreement. If you complain to those in your immediate circle of influence, but do not speak up to those in positions of authority where real change can be enacted, you have no one to blame but yourself when it is "more of the same" and things continue to spiral downward. Such criticism leads to a subversive climate, with muttering and murmuring but nothing productive or positive. Worse yet, if you choose to ignore the situations entirely and distance yourself from the present reality, apathy will abound.

Local school officials have determined that the schools will benefit from extended school day hours, even more than normal, when the current schedule already provides more clock hours than Virginia's Department of Education requires (990). There is also a proposed school calendar to permanently increase the school day by 15 minutes. These changes are being made without direct input from the stakeholders as I understand the process. I am even told that when a group of interested, involved, and intelligent students exercised their freedom of speech to create a You Tube video pleading for a different alternative schedule/plan, that they were threatened with disciplinary action unless the video (parody of Dora the Explorer since Dora is the superintendent's first name) was immediately removed from public posts and apology letters were dictated as necessary because of their actions. They did not violate any laws, policies, etc. with defamation (no slander of the superintendent). Yet, the school principal intervened with censorship and strongly suggested scare tactics of disciplinary consequences. This is deplorable in my opinion and cause for people to exercise their freedom of speech to weigh in on the matter. Many of my friends are more vested in these decisions than I am--you're students (WITH RIGHTS and don't you let ANYONE tell you otherwise), teachers, parents, and fellow taxpaying citizens with a voice that needs to be heard. Never underestimate that a small group of committed individuals can accomplish even the greatest of tasks--in this case, REAL REFORM!!!