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Blog

Aug 03
Professional Learning Communities Empower Teachers

​In 1998 Richard DuFour asked four questions.

What do we expect our students to learn?

How will we know they are learning?

How will we respond if they don’t learn?

How will we respond if they already know it?

No grand strategy or program is going to improve teaching and learning in every situation. Every school is unique. Every classroom is different. The answer lies within the collective experience and expertise of teachers working with students and collaborating with each other everyday.

Our answers to DuFour’s questions are found in Professional Learning Communities. What our students are expected to learn is given to us in the South Carolina Curriculum Standards. It is further defined in the Aiken County Curriculum Guides and Unit Organizers. However, it is in the PLC that those broad ideas are refined into meaningful units, lessons, projects, and events. Teachers using their shared experience and knowledge bring the curriculum to life.

Formative assessment provides a dynamic picture of how students are doing. PLC discussions of results on common assessments and strategies lead to more deliberate instructional planning. I have referred to Mastery Connect as an assessment platform. What it really does is serve as a link between teachers and schools to share practices that are working or show promise of working. It will allow us to expand PLC’s into a professional learning network.

PLC’s will respond appropriately according to the circumstances of their students to the questions of what to do if students aren’t learning or if they already know it. There is no perfect plan that fits every situation.  Veteran teachers, novice teachers, and everyone in between will work together to meet those individual needs.

While it is our commitment as a school district to focus our attention on developing and sustaining professional learning communities, we are not immune from the demands imposed by state and federal law. However, if we look at each requirement in the context of PLC’s, they become far less daunting. An example is the Read 2 Succeed Act. There are a number of details and requirements in the act but the ultimate goal is to have students reading on or above grade level. The PLC is the vehicle for accomplishing that goal. Teachers putting their heads together, analyzing data, trying new approaches, choosing those that work best, and repeating the process will achieve the desired result.

All of us want to support efforts to meet the needs of our students. Teachers understand those needs better than anyone else. Creating a culture around professional learning communities provides the collaborative structure to allow teachers to leverage their knowledge with that of their colleagues and focus everyone’s efforts on the ultimate goal of increasing student learning.

May 26
Open Letter

​Dear Aiken County Faculty and Staff,

As we near the end of the school year, I am privileged to congratulate you on the work you do everyday to support and enrich the lives of our students. Whether you are completing your first year with Aiken County Public Schools or you are a veteran of our hallways and classrooms, you can be proud of the difference you are making.

2014-15 was a successful year for Aiken County. We saw academic victories, athletic victories, and personal victories. We began developing a culture of collaboration in our district that promises to elevate our students to higher levels of creativity and critical thinking. Our focus on formative assessment and Professional Learning Communities will continue giving our students the benefit of our collective knowledge and expertise. As we practice communicating more effectively with each other we will model that behavior for our students, enhancing their interpersonal skills, and producing learners who are able to adapt to a variety of challenges.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the dialog we have had this year. Whether face-to-face through the Aiken County Teacher Forum and visits around the school district or virtually through surveys and emails, I have appreciated your advice and suggestions. Wherever possible we have put your recommendations into action. One example is your desire to have more time dedicated to collaboration in PLCs. We are going to make that happen with extended PLC time on early release days. Thanks to your proposals we are also working to facilitate multi-school PLCs for teachers who don’t have same subject peers in their schools. If we continue to honestly and openly discuss our vision and goals, there is no limit to what we can accomplish in the years to come.

This is an exciting time to be an educator in Aiken County. I am excited to continue working with you as we build a promising future for our students and for ourselves. Thank you and have a wonderful summer.

 

Mar 26
A Picture Paints a Thousand Words

​Visual identity is an important feature of a successful business. People immediately recognize a logo and have an instant reaction to it. Whether positive or negative, the logo elicits a mental response. Wherever you may be, the Target bull’s eye says variety and reasonable price. There is no doubt whether Coke or Pepsi products are in a vending machine. The Starbucks logo says good, strong, (expensive) coffee. I read an article recently that suggested a Starbucks store was a sure sign of an up and coming neighborhood. Look for the green mermaid before you buy a house. Businesses use their brand to distinguish themselves from the competition.

Does the school district need that? Do we need a brand, a logo? Does it matter? Yes, it matters. Aiken County Public Schools isn’t the only game in town. Parents can choose private, charter, online, and home school. We need to project an image to parents of a high quality school system that will prepare their children for a successful future. A logo can’t do that by itself. It’s just a symbol, but it’s a symbol that should embody the organization it represents.

Our image should represent quality, innovation, and a vision for the future. It should inspire confidence that we are preparing our students to meet the demands of the twenty-first century. The reality is that we are doing just that. With innovations like the virtual academy, STEM focused middle schools, expansion of career and technology education, arts infusion, advanced placement, college dual enrollment, one to one computing, and a host of others we are preparing our students to meet the challenges they will face after graduating. Let’s make sure everyone knows it.  A new image that captures our sense of innovation is a perfect way to move the conversation forward.

Mar 05
Things are Looking Up

​This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of my graduation from USC Aiken. That was an exciting time for education in South Carolina. The ink was still wet on A Nation at Risk. The Education Improvement Act (EIA) established South Carolina as a national leader in school reform. Since then the hits have kept on coming. EIA gave us BSAP and the first exit exam, which served us well for about ten years. Then the national Goals 2000 movement called for standards. Again, South Carolina led the way with some of the first comprehensive standards for ELA and math in the United States. We passed the Education Accountability Act (EAA) replacing the basic skills of BSAP with the new standards and a more rigorous assessment – PACT.

Sadly, South Carolina was forced to take a back seat in 2001 when No Child Left Behind (NCLB) created a national accountability system. We kept our superior system but it somehow got lost the NCLB hysteria. We know the rest of the story. The target was set at 100%. Schools and districts were rated and received varied sanctions. The impossible target led to waivers, and waivers led to more sanctions.

So, here we are. I think here is a good place. There is a very good chance that Congress will soon pass a new federal education law. It will have some positive aspects and some questionable ones, but it will finally give us some direction. We have new leadership at the South Carolina Department of Education that is committed to collaborating with school districts. Business and community organizations are taking a sincere interest in education in our state. We have an opportunity to make real, positive change for the students of South Carolina.  

This is an exciting time to be an educator. It is incumbent on us to take advantage of the opportunities we are being presented. Groups including Transform SC, New Carolina, and the SCASA Superintendents' Roundtable joined forces to create the Profile of the South Carolina Graduate. This profile calls for an emphasis on world class knowledge, world class skills, and life and career characteristics. The South Carolina Department of Education, the State Board of Education, and the South Carolina Council on Competitiveness have embraced the profile. For the first time a broad spectrum of society has identified its expectations and has committed to achieving those educational goals. Once again South Carolina is taking the lead, and this time we have the clout behind us to rise to the top tier in the nation.  

Jan 13
Our Next Comfort Zone

​Public Education seems to be continually immersed in an atmosphere of change. Whether it is accountability, instructional standards, assessment, professional evaluation, or fat and calories served in the cafeteria, we are forever debating or attempting to implement something new.

Change is not easy for most people. We get into routines where we are comfortable, and the natural inclination is to remain there. Newton's First Law of Motion states that an object in a uniform state of motion will remain in that state of motion unless acted upon by an external force. That concept applies to people as well.

I like the show, "The Big Bang Theory." In one episode Penny suggests that Sheldon get out of his comfort zone. Sheldon asks, "Why would we want to that? It's named for a reason." I agree with Sheldon in that there needs to be a good reason to move me from a state of comfort to one of discomfort. I heard a speaker say recently that being uncomfortable isn't necessarily bad, it's just uncomfortable. While groaning on the inside at the speaker's attempt at wit, I realized that there was indeed a spark of wisdom in his declaration. Given appropriate justification, change is necessary. Since change creates discomfort one has to acknowledge that being uncomfortable through a needed change process isn't all bad.

Another problem with change is the perception that if I need to change I must be doing something wrong. This perfectly natural response leads to defensiveness and mistrust. Once people are on the defensive it is hard to break through no matter how logical or reasonable the argument. Mistrust can be even more difficult to tackle.

Change agents have to recognize this potential fallout and assure recipients that there is no fault or blame associated with the impending change. Sometimes it's the game itself or the rules of the game that change. Before 1980 a 22 foot shot in college basketball earned two points. After that it became a three pointer. Before 1974 a 30 yard field goal in football was kicked from the 30 yard line. That same kick now has to cover 40 yards due to the moving of the goalposts to the back of the end zone. The games were changed and nobody did anything wrong. Still, players, coaches, and fans had to adjust to the new rules.

As public educators, our game has been changed and we have to adjust to the new rules if we are going to continue to be relevant. We may be doing everything right to meet previous expectations, but those expectations aren't good enough anymore. When we looked at a bell curve years ago, it was a given that a certain percentage of students would excel and a certain percentage would fail. The standard now is universal proficiency. That fact alone means we have to approach teaching differently. There is a greater emphasis on post-secondary training. Graduation rates are expected to increase annually. The demographics in our schools are rapidly changing, and each demographic subgroup is measured independently for proficiency. The rule changes aren't bad. In fact they demonstrate an enlightenment that has never existed collectively in public education before. However, we have a challenge ahead of us that requires that we change the way we approach instruction.

Change is rarely something that can happen immediately. Ideally, real systemic change takes time, commitment, resources, and patience. The problem is that political leaders demand change right now, provide limited resources, and quickly run out of patience. All of that leads to wavering commitment from those implementing the change. It doesn't have to be that way. If we as educational practitioners recognize that change happens slowly and deliberately, we can build momentum that will sustain itself through the uncomfortableness. People are the critical element. Curriculum, strategies, materials, equipment, and technology are all important, but they require quality professionals using professional judgment to make them work. The game changed so we have to change, but let's rely on our collective expertise to guide us to our next comfort zone.

Dec 08
Closing the Achievement Gap Isn't Good Enough

​There is much talk about closing the achievement gap in American Education. Schools are penalized for having too wide a gap between demographic groups and are rewarded when gaps are reduced.

A gap can exist between any two groups or multiple groups. A population in which eighty-five percent of full-pay meal students are proficient while only fifty percent of free or reduced meal students are proficient would be said to have a thirty-five point achievement gap. If the following year that gap were to be reduced to twenty-five points, the school might be praised for making progress. Maybe that's valid or maybe it isn't. What if the full-pay students had actually dropped ten points? What if they lost five and the free/reduced group gained five? Neither of those scenarios is anything to cheer about.

Picture this. Both groups gain ten points. That might be something to cheer about, but the achievement gap hasn't changed at all. It is time to stop talking in terms of achievement gaps and start talking about improving proficiency for all students.

It is unacceptable that students from poverty or African American students or Hispanic students fail to achieve at the same level as non-impoverished students or white students. We need to be having courageous conversations with each other about obstacles and disadvantages and then devise strategies to overcome them. It's reasonable to talk about reasons that groups of students are not achieving as long as those reasons don't devolve into excuses. English language learners are certainly at a disadvantage until they approach mastery of English. That's an excuse if it is simply accepted on its face. If our goal is to improve proficiency for all students then we address the language needs while maintaining high expectations for success.

Special education can be a touchy subject. Students didn't volunteer to be special ed. There is a valid reason for these students to struggle to gain proficiency. We are still bound to maintain high expectations, put supports in place, and increase proficiency for all students.

There is no easy fix, but neither is it an insurmountable task. We need to continue to provide solid, high quality instruction in all of our classrooms. We need to ensure that the instruction provided is based on a rigorous curriculum that is relevant to our students and the world for which we are preparing them. We need to recognize that not all students learn at the same rate, and many need additional supports. We have to commit to investing the time and providing the supports. That means making sure teachers have the skills and resources necessary to deliver the appropriate interventions.

Our job as educators is to move each student forward. By increasing proficiency for all students the achievement gaps will take care of themselves.

Dec 02
Navigating Change in the New Year

As December begins people often look back at the year and try to enumerate accomplishments and minimize disappointments. Some of the "glass half empty" folks may do the opposite. While looking back people also look forward to the new year ahead. What will they be able to accomplish? What obstacles stand in the way. How will the new year compare to the one that is coming to a close? 

The calendar year has less of an impact for educators than for the rest of society. We measure the year from August to June with July balanced between the old and new. While others pack lights and tinsel into the attic at the end of December, we pack away suntan lotion and barbecue gear in August and begin preparing classrooms to mark the beginning of our year.  

This new year is an exception. There will be a transition in leadership at the South Carolina Department of Education in January. Our new draft  standards for ELA and math are being reviewed and debated over the next few months with an eye toward approval in time for the next school year. We have a new assessment, ACT Aspire, for accountability to be administered in the spring. The requirements for teacher and principal evaluation are being updated and discussed with plans to implement the new system in 2015-16. Virtual classrooms, one to one computing, Bring Your On Device (BYOD), and other alternative approaches to education are changing the way we do our jobs. I don't think I am exaggerating when I suggest that this may be one of the most complex and comprehensive transitions we have ever seen with the flip of a calendar page. 

My advice for addressing the change - Don't panic. Let's slow down, take a breath, move forward deliberately, and get it right. I want to reassure teachers that we are not going to panic, issue immediate decrees, and disrupt their classrooms. Change is inevitable, and while this time there seems to be a multitude of changes happening all at once, we have been through it before. We have outstanding teachers with a solid curriculum designed to meet the needs of our students. We need to stick with what we know works and be confident that our teachers will focus on what is important in getting results. If we provide support, professional development and resources, we can rely on our teachers to get the job done regardless of the changes that come our way.

Oct 16
Save time typing a web address on an iPad/iPhone

​When typing a website URL, save time by holding the period key to select the internet suffix. (.com, .net, edu.....)


Curriculum Technology (Terry, Ashlee, Mark)