There was an unprecedented school board meeting last Wednesday night at which over 1000 parents and teachers showed up to protest the top-down implementation of our new Academic Improvement Plan which includes (among many other things) a one-size-fits-all curriculum, constant assessing of the students, mandatory departmentalization of grades 3-5 (optional K-2), a long list of "highly suggested" classroom configurations such as Word Walls, daily items on the white boards, anchor charts, and scripted lesson plans. This year, highly-qualified, outstanding and award-winning teachers are doubting their ability to do a good job.
Here's an example of a 4th grade scripted lesson plan for writing:
This all came to be with the hiring of our new Chief Academic Officer who, in April presented to the board a plan that would be implemented the following school year. This plan caused business as usual in our district to come to a screeching halt as our new CAO collected information from every department and scrutinized what was being done before he made his "recommendations" as to what should be done differently "by Friday."
Newly created to help support this program were the Capacity Development and School Reform Teams. These teams responsibilities include (you can read more here):
- Conduct regularly scheduled meetings of teachers to review lesson and unit plans for the purpose of supporting colleagues throughout the initial implementation.
- Identify designated times for the curriculum committee to receive implementation feedback from teachers.
- Examine assessment results in the aggregate by the curriculum committee to identify any realignment that may need to occur.
- Prepare an Initial Implementation Report outlining suggestions for research-based professional development and/or realignment of curriculum.
- WALK-THROUGH classrooms looking for key indicators of effective teaching. What is being "said" is that during these walk-throughs, these teams are looking for these items (however the checklist they use is embedded below. Click on the "Full" button to view the page full screen.):
- Classroom Environment is Conducive to Teaching and Learning
- Materials Support a High Level of Teaching and Learning
- Higher Order Questioning and Thinking is Evident
- Instruction Effectively Engages Students
- Reading and Writing Activities are Evident Across the Curriculum
- Data Analysis is Used to Redirect Instructional Focus and Students’ Instructional Needs
- School and District Leadership and Coaching is Evident
Establishing the strategies for school improvement and monitoring classroom teacher effectiveness used to be the role of the school-based administrators. However, with this Top-Down MicroManagement, even our principals have felt powerless to empower teachers with the flexibility we need to creatively meet each students' individual needs. Just when a principal would make a decision, something would change that would cause a ripple effect and a renege on the message previously issued. It's been an extremely distracting environment in which to teach.
Many parents (thousands) are irate and have been very vocal. This caused an uproar and it all came to a head at our last school board meeting. (If you want to watch it, click here and type 10/21/09 in the search field. Don't miss the last 20 or so minutes of the meeting when the board members begin to speak.) Among other things, parents are unhappy about all the testing. They know its a numbers game and that for their kids, it's wasted instructional time. They also see the negative impact on their kids' enjoyment of school and unfortunately, somatic symptoms are starting to emerge in many younger students as well.
In addition to the constant testing, there's the issue of the frameworks, or scope, where all students will learn the same benchmarks within the same 3-week window. 5 days ago, we, teachers of the gifted, were informed that this would no longer be necessary for all gifted students as we can now use what is called "Curriculum Compacting." With (more) testing, if a student has mastered a standard (mastery = 90%) then that student can skip the instruction for that standard and move on. It was unclear to all of us whether that meant we can enrich and/or if necessary, advance the student to the next grade level of standards. Truth be told, it's what we are already doing (and what all teachers across the board have been trying to do - before their hands got tied), except with this plan we are required to test repeatedly on an individual basis and keep meticulous records on the data for each student's mastery of each standard in order to report on the progress. Isn't there something called a Report Card for that? Just 'sayin!
The last thing I want to mention is the departmentalization. At the elementary level, students in grades K-5 typically had one teacher all day (except for fine arts). In some cases, departmentalization for certain subjects takes place. But until this year, it has always been a school-based decision. This year, it was mandatory for all elementary schools that grades 3-5 would departmentalize. Included in that mandate were these PollyAnna "suggestions:"
- Students backbacks should be extremely light carrying ONLY a "take home" folder and their planners. Students would not carry home textbooks (they can get them online) or supplies (we would collect those purchased by parents and keep them in buckets on the tables for students to share). - Students backpacks are heavier than ever with one teacher not knowing what the other is assigning for HW, and the students can NOT all get to the online textbooks, nor is that an effective way for ALL students to read/study. As you can guess, the parents are not thrilled with having purchased supplies for their children that are now sitting in communal buckets.
- Conferences would include the team of teachers. What used to be a 20 minute conference between me and my student's parent, is now a 45+ minute conference between me, the student's parent and 2 other teachers. Plus, instead of conferencing with my 22 students, I have potentially 65 opportunities to have these 45 minutes conferences. Middle and High School parents don't require all these conferences. IT IS NOT THE SAME THING; WE ARE ELEMENTARY!! Added benefit for parents? They have to wait to schedule until all 3 of us can be there. Or, they can come in 3 different times.
- Students will share a desk where all their notebooks, textbooks and folders will reside. We don't, after all, have lockers. Three students can't fit all their stuff inside one desk, Mr. CAO! Additionally, these kids need a space they can call their own. Every day I deal with Sally telling me that Johnny accidentally wrote in her notebook or took home her folder, or left garbage in her desk that she now has to clean out. Johnny tells me he didn't do it so it must be Betty who also shares the desk!
So, now that everyone is clearly upset, our superintendent is speaking on behalf of our CAO and has issued this letter to principals. Principals will now be allowed to clean up the mess.
Our school has made no decisions and will not until some careful thought and discussion has taken place; as it should be. Personally, I'm most thrilled that our principal has regained the authority to make some decisions confidently.