Monday, February 05, 2007

Column 92 (National) - Education

Due to a combination of work travel and a death in the family, I missed the deadline for a head-to-head column with Jim Clark last Sunday. The Bonanza was kind enough to provide space today, and since Jim addressed education, I’ll do the same.

I agree with Jim that the data on all-day kindergarten are not persuasive, and it was probably a good move on Governor Gibbons’ part not to commit to it. I don’t know that I would attribute quite the same dark motives to those who support all-day kindergarten that Jim does, but in a time of limited education budgets, it doesn’t seem like a good bet to me.

For the past year or so I’ve been working with an organization called the Center for Excellence in Research, Teaching, and Learning (CERTL) at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. CERTL has mostly been involved in curriculum improvement, but more recently was impressed with a very substantial body of data that indicates that communication and collaboration amongst teachers, administrators, students, and parents is a, if not the critical determinant of student achievement. Based on that, CERTL asked the organization I work for to join with them under a grant from the National Education Association to do a pilot program to see if, by improving communication we could impact student achievement. We are working with six schools in Winston-Salem – we purposely targeted the six schools in the district that are in the most trouble under No Child Left Behind standards and have been working with the Principals and key staff in these schools.

I just got back from our third workshop session with the teams from the schools – we have two people from CERTL who provide on-site coaching and support between the workshops – and was very impressed with the progress the schools are making. Trust and morale levels are rising, even in a couple of the schools where communication had been pretty much non-existent. More importantly, students are starting to feel the impact of the change. Let me tell you about one example:

Jerilyn is a first-grader who has been a behavior problem since day one. Finally the teacher called in the school guidance counselor, who is a participant in our program, to evaluate him. The counselor, using communication and listening skills she attributed to her work with us, heard something and asked Jerilyn “do you like to read?” Jerilyn replied in his usual surly tone “yeah.” She went on to ask, “do you like to read hard books?” “yeah.” So she had him start reading – first grade, second grade, third grade level books – he breezed through them all, so she took him to the Librarian who gave him more advanced books – up to fifth grade level and he aced them all. She gave him a comprehension test and found he understood what he was reading perfectly. The Counselor then took him around to the Principal, the Assistant Principal and others and had him read for them.

On the way back to his classroom, Jerilyn burst into tears. Asked why, he said “This is the best day of my life! Nobody ever bragged on me before, nobody ever told me I was smart.”

Jim talked about the Edmonton Experiment in schools running themselves – that experiment is based on the same premise as our work in Winston-Salem – that if you give teachers the freedom to teach and don’t hogtie them with tests, regulations, arbitrary standards, and red tape, they will teach and students will learn – that’s all they want to do, and given the opportunity they will do it. It’s very early days for Governor Gibbons, and readers of this column will know that I’m no fan of his. But if he is serious about implementing self-determination for our schools and our teachers, he’ll have my support on that at least, and I’d urge you to ask our representatives in the legislature to support this very worthwhile program.

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