We are under pressure as never before to increase student achievement across all areas of school life. In the public school world, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is guiding how we approach our work in schools with high-stakes tests driving classroom instruction. In the independent school world, we are guided less by the world of high-stakes tests and more by the pressure from our school culture and parents to fulfill our dreams for each student to get into the best colleges. We know that having “high-quality” teachers in the classroom is the best guarantee towards meeting our goal to help every child learn to his or her full potential.
As we complete the first decade of the 21st Century, a high school diploma is probably not enough to secure a good paying job in the workplace. A globally, interconnected world that depends on computers, the internet, and collaboration across many time zones requires citizens to have a more versatile set of skills. Problem-solving, teamwork, and communication skills are essential for success in many professions. Whether students graduate from an inner city public school, a suburban public school, or an independent school, they will be called upon to demonstrate mastery of skills that we have always valued and sometimes taught, but are now seen as a “requirement” to enter the competitive workforce.
In public schools, we can see that many schools are not making the mark with regard to meeting NCLB proficiency goals slated for 2014. Debra Viadero reports in Education Week (November 4, 2009) that “in a 47-state study, researchers used student test scores to figure out where the proficiency levels on various state tests would fall on the NAEP test–the nation’s report test.” It was found between 2005-2007 some states’ standards were made less rigorous in some grade levels or subjects in 26 instances. Sixteen states lowered their state standards for what constituted “proficient” performance on 8th grade mathematics exams. Georgia was one of the states that lowered the bar. The study indicated that the bar was raised in only four states. Are we helping our students prepare for their futures by lowering standards to meet NCLB expectations? What is the inherent value of the test and is it measuring the knowledge, reasoning, skills and products of learning that we determine are essential? Does the test give us valuable information about how well prepared students are for participating in the 21st Century?
While the situation is different for independent schools, there are still common challenges. In independent schools, student achievement, while not measured against a set of standards that are driven by local school districts, state department of education, or the federal government, still must be measured and monitored. Academic standards tend to be determined from within the school, division or academic department. A student’s achievement is measured against her or her peers, within a class or maybe within a grade-level if the teachers in a discipline or grade collaborate to teach the same or similar curriculum. Still, students have to be prepared take national exams, such as ITBS, SAT, ACT, or AP exams. Performance on these exams might be used internally or in the college admissions process. The question could be asked in what way is the curriculum or our teaching practices aligned to help prepare students for the test they are required to take. Are these tests designed to measure the 21st Century knowledge, reasoning, skills and products of learning that students will need to be competitive?
Are we prepared to evaluate our curriculum and make the necessary adjustments to accommodate more attention to these “21st century skills?” If we shift from an emphasis on mastering content to focus more on the process of learning and the skills needed to be a successful learner, what adjustments in the amount and nature of the content we teach and in the way we assess student achievement will have to be made? Thoughtful writers and educators are suggesting that we will have to make some significant changes (see the September 2009 edition of Educational Leadership for a series of good articles). What changes will we have to make in the way teachers engage in professional development? I would argue that we will have to make some thoughtful and targeted changes to our curriculum, teaching methods, and most importantly, teacher professional development.
Also in Education Week (November 4, 2009), Ross Hunefeld wrote a commentary about schools changing their professional development programs to rely more on their teachers’ expertise to guide programs. “Teachers don’t improve by listening to someone tell how to do something newer or better in their classrooms. They learn by working together to address problems they themselves identify in their schools and classrooms.” Mr. Hunefeld makes the case for collaborative action research in which the teacher creates new knowledge about best practices and what it takes to improve student achievement. When faculty work in a professional learning community with their colleagues, positive changes in student achievement have been shown to occur. Investment in embedded, ongoing, collaborative work is the most efficacious form of professional development. In our schools, we need to create collaborative professional development time for faculty. At Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Junior High School math, science, English, and social studies teachers, under the direction of Bo Adams, the principal, are engaged in regular PLC work on content, curriculum development, and assessment. Also, in our hiring practices, we must hire teachers who are willing and able to collaborate and improve their understanding of what it means to be a good teacher.
Published in Ideas and Perspectives, October 19, 2009, Independent School Management (ISM) reported on their six-year project entitled, International Models School Project. They have shown that there is a “powerful relationship between a professional-growth-focused faculty culture and student performance, satisfaction, and enthusiasm. While they do not directly address the value of PLCs, they do support seven initiatives:
1. A culture in which professional development is the norm;
2. A faculty culture that has professional development linked to evaluation;
3. A faculty culture that supports performance standards for faculty;
4. A faculty culture that rewards high-level performance;
5. A faculty culture that promotes peer-to-peer learning;
6. A faculty culture that aligns professional development to student outcomes;
7. A school culture that aligns schedule and calendar to a growth-focused faculty culture.
As we shift our priorities and resources to more collaboration and research-oriented professional development, we will create teams of faculty that are more creative and engaged. These teams will begin to focus on redesigning curriculum with a balance between covering content and learning skills. These teams will also research and implement new strategies for assessing student performance, assessments that authentic, formative, and comprehensive. The goal of this work should be to increase student engagement in the learning environment and thereby student achievement.