Sunday, February 25, 2007

Getting Our Conference On

The POY and I presented the school's program for change -- "Defy the Myth: Structural and Instructional Reform Toward Educational Equity" -- at two conferences over the past three weeks. At NABE, we were hanging out in the satellite building, far from main action, and the crowd was sparse. No representatives from the District were present. At Asilomar, we got the ocean-view room, with a fireplace and deer walking by, and we packed the place, had to turn people away. Many representatives from the County were present.

It's strange to do these presentations, to tell the story of moving from an awful school to a good (read: average) school because you get the book report feeling. You try to explain what happened without fetishising the negative aspects of the school pre-change, the disorganization, the disunity, the violence, etc., and you try to explain how change occured without being too heavy-handed or self-congratulatory. You temper your sense of how great you think all this is with the acknowledgement that still less than half your students finish eighth grade proficient, and with the kind of baseline embarrasment that things were so bad in the first place, here and elsewhere, that mediocrity looks so damn good in comparison.

And it's all in the past. The work the educators did, the success the students demonstrated, the renewed commitment from families, everything that came together such that you get invited to do these conferences -- it's all in the past. We don't think about these things so much anymore, or at least we shouldn't, and it feels strange to retell and refocus on so-recent history. We want to talk about the future, we want to talk about the further myth defying that comes when you need to believe that a school rooted in poverty and second language acquisition can truly excel, not just avoid the signals of badness. We want to talk about encapsulating teacher knowledge and making explicit the programs teachers have developed to reach diverse learning groups. Instead, we talk about past performance, and try to communicate the principles so derived.
  • If your student needs are larger (ELL, mutli-year performance gaps) you need to extend the school day to meet these needs
  • Differentiation is wonderful, but students must be grouped to reduce the range of differentiation to a mangeable and realistic level
  • Improving instruction is less about downloading a set of strategies or investing in a single program, and is instead focused on developing the understanding of the process of teaching, learning, and assessment
We talk about all these past issues, except it's not really the past. Because we are 6-8, because we have been 7-8, because every year our crop of incoming students performs lower than the year before -- which, in light of documented growth by elementaries, may be an unfortunate byproduct of matriculation/ boundary patterns more than anything else -- we can never truly move into that next phase. We function, to paraphrase the POY, as extended summer school for elementary schools, constantly in remediation mode, constantly running this sick, sad race to catch kids up and instill in them the skills they should have mastered one, or three, or five years ago. We can never move forward until our District commits to making the changes -- real newcomer centers that work, 4th and 5th grade intervention, alternative curricula, sensible retention -- that will substantially improve student performance.

Having the opportunity to present this (counter)narrative at conferences is good fun, and probably important on some level, but it leaves me feeling a little cold as I prepare to go to work on Monday, because for all the change and improvements, we are still, substantially, in the same place.


Blogger H. said...

Of course it can feel like a waste to work so hard to compensate for skills not acquired when they should have been. On the other hand, don't work yourself into the depressive mindset of that old Physics professor who used to complain that every year he taught the same old stuff, he'd been repeating himself for decades, and still those students didn't get it... The students you're teaching to read, write, add and subtract are new each year, and the growth - if still at the same level - is for new children each time. And basic skills are intrinsically valuable, useful in wider terms than reducing the gap between the best and the worst schools, of course.

1:19 PM  
Blogger ponytrax said...

It's Liz from I Speak of Dreams.

"Having the opportunity to present this (counter)narrative at conferences is good fun, and probably important on some level, but it leaves me feeling a little cold as I prepare to go to work on Monday, because for all the change and improvements, we are still, substantially, in the same place."

TMAO, part of your malaise is the short-term nature of your school.

I'm also involved with a 6-8 middle school, and some people were all excited because the aggregate scores for the last round of testing were so much higher than four years ago.

I had to point out that we were talking about an entirely different set of kids. None of the kids tested four years ago were in the cohort in the most recent tests; none of the kids tested most recently were in the cohort tested four years ago.

We couldn't really argue that we were doing better, based on that set of evidence -- maybe we just had a more able set of kids in the current cohort.

One of the weaknesses in the current mandated public school testing is that it isn't particularly tied to individual students.

I am going to ignore the ELL issues for the moment, which I know isn't fair because it is a big issue in your school.

If your incoming sixth graders are reading at an average mid-third grade level, and and the end of sixth grade, are reading at a mid-fifth grade level, have you failed or not?

I'd say not -- two years of progress in one year of instruction is not to be deprecated.

Are the kids caught up? No -- but if you can continue the 2 years' progress over the next years, most will be ahead of the game.

As to school reform (and district reform) you might be interested in this post at Dennis Fermoyle's blog:

Teachers and Educational Reform.

1:19 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

No doubt, Liz, no doubt. Testing is problematic because it doesn't follow kids, but also because the growth measures of API compare achievement at the end of year-A and the end of year-B as opposed to the beginning of year-B and the end of year-B.

The larger frustration really is the lack of corresponding improvement in incoming students. I've taught the same programmatic levels for three years in a row. Three years ago I had 10 FBB students. Last year 17. This year 35. It's sad, and our inability to influence change around us -- especially when folks all over CA and AZ want to hear what we did -- is likewise sad. Something about being a prophet in your own land.

There's also the professional growth issue. I can move kids 3+ years in reading ability. I in no way equate that with failure. But it is emergency medicine, and being in that constant, constant state is hard.

5:14 PM  

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