Monday, June 26, 2006

Defining "Academic Excellence for All"

The tag line for this blog is, "Joining together across Seattle to fight for public schools that deliver academic excellence for all."

But, imagine we are successful. What would that look like?

I would fight strongly any effort to define academic excellence by WASL scores alone, but I recognize and acknowledge the need to measure outcomes (what students can do), and know how difficult and time-consuming that can be to do well in a way that honors individual learning styles and differences.

I think academic excellence can be described, in part, by the range of school offerings or programs. For example, for Seattle schools to be academically excellent, I believe there need to be strong AP offerings, six periods of real classes a day at high school (not credit for helping the gym teacher sort equipment, which is what I have read is currently happening in some schools), rigorous and inspiring music and art classes, challenging hands-on science classes, and more.

Describing academic excellence in terms of what schools offer creates one problem and raises one question. The problem is that, with this kind of definition, a school could offer excellent academic offerings that don't meet the needs of their students. What one student may need to excel academically may not be the same as what another student needs. The question this raises is, should every school try to offer the same types of programs and offerings? Or, given that we are a district that (at least for now) offers school choice, should we be encouraging schools to specialize more?

These are my initial, unpolished thoughts on academic excellence. I would love to hear what others think. We need to know what "academic excellence for all" will look like in order to be able to achieve that goal.


Anonymous said...

Whether each school tries to create an individual identity or not, they do. They don't need to try; it just happens. That said, they should do it consciously so they can manage their culture to expand and deepen the positive elements and to shrink and mitigate the negative elements.

This is one of the reasons that people in Seattle value school choice. Choice allows them to find a school culture and curriculum that matches their child. At one time, not too long ago, the district decided to go with that rather than to fight it when they asked each school to develop a transformation plan. Remember those? The transformation plan was supposed to help each school consciously manage what makes their programs unique. We were on our way towards each school having an articulated identity.

That's one of the reasons that we can't easily go back to neighborhood schools and mandatory assignment by address. Each school staked out their niche, and they had to acknowledge that there were going to be some students they would not serve very well. And that was okay, so long as those students could find a place where they were well-served.

Of course, Seattle didn't operate the school choice properly. Schools that were not attracting enough students to field a class were supposed to get some attention from the district. They didn't. Schools that were persistently unpopular were supposed to be closed, re-invented, and re-opened. That didn't happen either. Instead, the district did the worst possible thing: they did nothing about schools that were not attracting students except try to force students into those schools with mandatory assignments.

A lot of these mandatory assignments were refused and the students ended up in private school.

Ah, well. Bygones. It's all water under the bridge now.

So is it okay that Roosevelt offers a lot of AP classes while Cleveland offers none? Yes, so long as students who want AP classes aren't compelled to attend Cleveland or are provided with some alternative access to that work. Is it okay that some schools have an Advanced Learning Opportunity and others don't? Yes, so long as the students who want access to one can get it. Unfortunately, there is no elementary school in the West Seattle-South cluster that now offers an Advanced Learning program of any kind.

There is a full spectrum of students with a wide variety of destinations after high school. The district has to be able to prepare each and every student for their post-high school plan, but I don't think that every school has to be able to accomodate the full spectrum - so long as the capacity is tailored to meet the demand.

Anonymous said...

That a lot to decontruct.

You have to be able to measure academic achievement. Assessment is not a dirty word. WASL is because it was designed to assess teachers, not students and yet it is now a determiner if a student will graduate from high school.

The problem I see (and I am hoping that CAO Carla Santorno will address) is site based management. It has run amok and this district has very little control over what is happening in schools and probably is clueless on what does happen. We need to go to "earned autonomy". Principals, are your schools making measurable progress academically (not meeting a standard that may be difficult with challenging populations), discipline rates reasonable, active parents who feel welcome in the school, involved staff? Yes, well , then you get a high degree of autonomy in what happens in your school. Otherwise, the district needs to pay attention and bear down on schools that do not perform. But just because kids are happy doesn't make it a good school. The academic piece is the crucial part.

High school. Boy, there's a lot to be said. It's an area I've worked on a lot to not much avail. High schools, in particular, need to be different. You need to engage kids to keep them in school and wanting to graduate. So no cookie-cutter high schools. Having said that, we need a baseline for parents in the enrollment guide. "Here is what you will find in every single SPS high school." Then, the programs go from there. We now have one high school (Roosevelt) whose LA department, on its own, decided no separate AP or Honors classes. Hale has now done almost completely away with separate AP and Honors in the name of "inclusion". In our district, academic achievers are on the downlow like they are an embarassment.

Meanwhile, over the pond in Bellevue, Mike O'Reilly has got hundreds of kids taking AP and Honors and doing pretty well.

AP and Honors are not the be all and end all to academic achievement but until college admissions officers say differently, they are very important.

But a school is like a three-legged stool with principal being one, parents another and staff another. Without all of them, you can't have strong schools. We have some weak principals, we have some uninvolved parents (for a variety of reasons but it hurts the school no matter what) and we have some teachers who just don't want to change anything they do.

I think the answer lies in strong leadership. We need a new superintendent (Raj is a nice guy, a good manager but not a leader), we need a School Board that doesn't pander to its constiuents (and we'll see from their final school closures list) and I rest a lot of hope on Carla Santorno, who, so far, has been a breath of fresh air in this district.