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my reflections on the September 27 meeting: closing the achievement gap in math?

I recently watched the archived webcast of the Sept. 27, 2011, meeting of the Pleasanton school board.

I want to offer my reflections on what I saw as the most interesting part of the meeting — the review of the testing completed last spring, which is analyzed over the summer and used to construct school-by-school scores on the API (Academic Performance Index). API ranges from 200 and 1000. All Pleasanton schools scored above 880 on the API, except for Village High School (a small continuation high school). District-wide, the average API was 906. (Here’s the headline from the Pleasanton Patch — Pleasanton Schools Exceed API Expectations.)

At the board meeting, board members and district cabinet members spent at least 45 minutes reviewing the district’s report on STAR results, in great detail. The other purpose of the California Standards Tests (CSTs) that almost all public school students take each spring, as required by the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program, aside from ranking schools with the API, is to allow districts, schools, and teachers to drill down into the student data, so that teachers and principals can work together to design instructional strategies for the 2011-2012 academic year.

In the full board packet (PDF) the agenda item 13.3 includes 21 pages of supporting text and tables.

During this portion of the meeting, board and cabinet members examined patterns in the data, to see what kind of progress the district is making in closing the achievement gap. They also looked at patterns across grade levels, in Math and English/Language Arts (ELA) and Science, to see how students are responding to recent adjustments in school practices.

The patterns that I am most curious about are about closing the achievement gap in Math, and ensuring that all students are making good progress in Math from year to year. Questions we can ask from the data are:

  • when students move from 5th grade into middle school, are they headed into math courses that challenge them without being overwhelming?
  • when students move on to high school, are they headed into courses that will prepare them for life after high school?
  • during high school, when are students meeting the minimum math standards for graduation (so they can pass the CAHSEE)?
  • what proportion of students meet the challenging standards required to apply for admission to one of the University of California or California State University campuses?

Regarding the achievement gap, there are related questions:

  • when students move into middle school, are they receiving equal opportunities to advance into challenging math courses, regardless of their ethnic background? are they performing at equal levels on the Math CSTs? If not, why not? Can the middle schools do something to help close those gaps?
  • when students move on to high school, are we closing gaps identified at the beginning of middle school, or do we have some ethnic groups racing ahead, while others lag behind? what can the high schools do to ensure that students get the math classes they will need?
  • just before high school graduation, what can we predict about whether students will be prepared to go to college, and where? If there are differences between ethnic groups, why?what can the schools or the district do to help close those gaps?

Some of these questions are answered in the archived webcast of the meeting, and other answers may be found in the 21-page budget backup for agenda item 13.3.

For more detail on the Sept. 27 school board meeting in Pleasanton, including other items that were on the agenda see this PDF.

FYI, the full board packet from the Sept. 27 meeting also includes minutes from the Sept. 13 meeting, for which I provided a preview of the agenda last month.

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Public schools 2025: A vision for the future

If I could wave a magic wand and transport us to the future – to the best of all possible worlds in 2025 – what would we see on a visit to Alisal, or Harvest Park, or Amador? What would Pleasanton’s students experience in their public schools, that would allow our community to earn its reputation as an outstanding place for families to live and students to learn?

I’m betting that bells will no longer ring in 2025 to signal the beginning of the school day. Students will no longer register for two semesters each year, or three grading periods, or four quarters. And schools will not close for the summer in 2025.

Shelly Blake-Plock argues that many features of our current public schools will be obsolete by 2021, and one of the key differences is that “the next decade is going to see the traditional temporal boundaries between home and school disappear [because] the 21st century is a 24/7 environment.”

She uses this assertion to suggest that homework will disappear. Plus, she thinks that attendance offices will disappear because bio-scans will allow students to check in with their fingerprint. And most provocative of all, she believes that the organization of educational services by grade will fade away.

Whoa! No more grade 7? Grade 8? grade 9?

I believe that’s an innovation that is long overdue, and one that will hit schools like a whirlwind over the next decade.

A necessary complement to the disappearance of students divided up by grades is a radical reframing of the curriculum. We should be moving away from curricular benchmarks that consist of artificially imposed timeframes for all 10-year-olds to take 10 months to learn specific concepts in mathematics (or other subjects).

In 2025, I can envision a school that is more like a community center, open year round from 8 am till 8 pm, and staffed by teams of professional educators who are each “on call” for 6-8 hours each day. The elimination of classroom grades will do away with what Charles Taylor Kerchner labels as “batch-process learning”, to be replaced by learning 2.0 — more choices and more challenges for students.

On a typical day that students check into their community center, they will spend much of their time in small conference rooms with 3-10 other students who are all focused on the same learning project. Students will sign up online to be “at work” in the community center for several time slots each day, and will have options to engage in team sports, theater and musical rehearsals, art projects and quiet reading time during other parts of their day. Students could also schedule days or weeks “off” from school, to travel with their families, but students and families could take pauses from school learning in different weeks. Some project groups could meet online, spanning across local community boundaries to bring together students who share a common interest and similar learning goals.

As Sandy Speicher of IDEO’s Design for Learning domain describes in her vision of the school of future, students will be “Building, making, imagining, interacting, investigating, reflecting, connecting, shaping, participating.” For some learning projects, students will work together intensively for a week or two, meeting for 6 hours per day. Other projects will involve less time each day, and permit students to participate in several different projects concurrently. Project teams might gather outside to collect data on the ecosystem of the arroyo, or visit local businesses to observe marketing trends and survey customers. They might visit with senior citizens to video-record oral histories, or practice their conversational skills in Spanish, Chinese, or Hindu.

Learning will become more student-centered, building on curricular innovations like the Khan Academy for math, allowing students to advance through lessons at their own pace. The roles of teachers will be transformed.

Each student will work with a “portfolio assessor” to review progress toward learning goals every two or three weeks, with parents participating via videoconference or in person. Assessors will provide developmental feedback to individual students each time they complete a learning project, and recommend that students sign up for subsequent learning projects that would challenge them to advance in particular skills.

“Learning coaches” will spend time each day working alongside a learning project team, to ensure that students are taking full advantage of the online supports, peer tutors, and partnerships with student learning groups at other schools that are designed into the project.

As well as serving as portfolio assessors and learning coaches, master teachers will also become “learning architects” who design new learning projects — creating structured opportunities for students to engage with key topics in fascinating ways. The learning projects they design will be available online to learning coaches across the district, so that the best curricular designs can be reused easily with different student learning teams.

As teachers’ jobs are redefined in these new ways, drawing attention to the sophisticated skills that teachers of the future will bring to their work, the greater public will develop a deeper respect for teaching as a profession. Talented individuals will again aspire to become teachers, drawn by their increasing autonomy as they develop skill in facilitating students’ learning.

These changes will not come easily, of course. There are formidable political battles ahead on the innovation journey from 2011 to 2025. Without an energizing vision of the future to guide us, those battles may seem overwhelming. When a vision of the future emerges, though, it becomes easier to give up outdated practices in order to make space and time for new efforts with more powerful impacts on learning.

What’s your vision of the school of the future? Grab that magic wand, and dream big.

Cuts rescinded, programs saved in Pleasanton schools

The special board meeting yesterday (June 3) was well attended by parents, teachers and staff. Several spoke in favor of restoring class sizes in grades K-3, PE specialists in the elementary schools, reading specialists and the Barton specialist, and counselors.

Parents and students also advocated for expanded course offerings in the high schools, and obtained a partial victory when the board amended cabinet’s recommendation and added $50,000 for each comprehensive high school to use to open additional sections so that more high school students will be able to include seven subjects in their high school schedule for next fall.

The archived webcast of the meeting is available online. I attended the portion of the meeting from 4:30 till 6 pm, but the vote was not finalized until about 7 pm. After I’ve had a chance to review the rest of the webcast, I will post an expanded summary of the meeting, with my commentary.

There is also a summary article up at the Pleasanton Patch.