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Volume VIII Issue VIII

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Hot Topics

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop


Predicting the future is a tricky endeavor since we cannot always anticipate “which way the wind will blow.” While some people reject the idea of attempting to forecast future events, other dedicated professionals keep themselves apprised of possibilities, especially in their chosen vocations or fields of endeavor. These practitioners feel that it is important to follow the Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared.” Concisely put, they follow their belief that knowledge is power.

There are numerous topics that potentially impact the lives and practices of educators. Some issues remain “on our plates” year after year. It is almost a relief when resolutions are reached or decisions are made since we will then have a clearer picture of what will be expected of us. But, fear not, there will never be a shortage of topics with which educators must wrestle that are in the news and influencing our thinking. Often individuals and whole schools are asked to offer their opinions or take a stance in reaction to these “hot topics.” To help leaders and teaching staffs be better prepared, the information on the topics below will keep educators apprised of current issues that are either in process or likely to be a part of our lives in the future. Accompanying each subject is a website that provides additional information on each topic.

The Future of No Child Left Behind
No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the current ideation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, has been the federal education law since 2001 when it was proposed by President George W. Bush and passed by Congress. Over the past decade, the law has placed an emphasis on school accountability as measured by standardized cores. President Obama has expressed his opinion that he would like to see “a comprehensive bipartisan reauthorization of the law by the start of the next school year.” The President has also stated that he wants a revised version of NCLB that is “less punitive, more focused and more flexible.” 

Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has stated that unless NCLB is changed or revised, 82% of public schools could be labeled as failing under the current law because they will not achieve AYP. Other requirements of the current law have also been called into question. Some analysts have written that what is currently taught in schools is narrowing as teachers focus on improving standardized tests scores. Some teachers have concluded that the current tests do not test important and essential knowledge and skills. Finally, some states are lowering their standards to redefine “proficient” in order to meet the 2014 goal of the law. Currently 45 states are participating in efforts to overhaul their tests while several states, most recently Idaho, South Dakota, and Montana, are threatening to defy the federal law (and thus lose federal dollars). Idaho Superintendent Tom Luna has stated, “We’re not going to identify more schools as needs improvement,” because the schools are improving and have made great strides in improving student achievement but still fall below the achievement bar which continues to rise each year. As more states seek relief from the law, Secretary Duncan has recently announced that he would grant waivers to states that could not meet the law’s requirements. (https://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/blueprint/blueprint.pdf)

Common Core Standards
One topic that has elicited extensive dialogue and resulted in reforms in the field of education is the adoption of Common Core Standards (CCS) that include a revision of how math and language arts are being taught across the country. Currently, 40-plus states, as well as the District of Columbia, have agreed to the adoption of the core standards which are expected to be in wide use by 2014. The purpose of the standards is to raise the bar on what students are expected to learn. A number of states have already taken action to adopt the common core and are providing professional development for their teaching staffs. As well, work is in progress to develop new computer-based national assessments aligned with the new standards. The potential plan calls for the use of quarterly assessments that would provide data and feedback on student progress in learning the core standards. 

Some states have already devised and are implementing prototypes of the Common Core Standards. Included in the revised curricula is an increased emphasis on real-world situations, greater hands-on learning opportunities, increased attention to the writing process and writing applications, a stronger focus on the skills of persuasion, analysis and argument in classroom lessons, a greater emphasis on non-fiction reading, more stress on math operations and less on basic math concepts, and the use of more complex texts to improve students’ literacy skills. As the movement expands, there will be a requirement for increased professional development for classroom teachers in order to bring meaning to the standards.

Opponents have argued that the common core initiative is moving too fast. In a manifesto entitled “Closing the Door on Innovation,” released in May of 2011, the challengers have launched a counterattack making the case that the adoption will lead to a national curriculum, impose a one-size-fits-all model on schools, stifle creativity, and negatively impact the autonomy that school districts currently enjoy. Although the adoption of Common Core Standards is currently viewed as voluntary by the federal Department of Education, opponents believe that the movement will eventually lead to a national curriculum and thus link federal funding to the adoption and implementation of the standards. (www.corestandards.org)

The STEM Movement
As educators contemplate the future, they are restructuring their curricula to focus more attention on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in a movement commonly know as STEM. An increasing number of leaders and policy makers in the field of education are promoting their belief that schools must place a greater emphasis on STEM in order to prepare students for a highly competitive international 21st century economy. As some districts have made inroads into organizing their curricula around STEM, they are encountering difficulties in financing their efforts, finding more time during the school day for such programs, and hiring and training the best teachers to implement such programs. A recent report in District Administration has stated that “over the past two years the STEM movement has shown signs of taking root as district leaders say they are finding public and private funding to develop STEM-related curricula, ramping up professional development, and even launching dedicated STEM academies from San Antonio to Baltimore.” (www.districtadministration.com/viewarticle.aspx?articleid=2741)

The Framework for 21st Century Skills
As leaders contemplate not just the future of education but the future of our nation, they are incorporating into their curriculum a framework that consists of the skills and knowledge that an informed citizenry will need to face the challenges in coming years. Forward looking school systems such as the Catalina Foothills District in Tucson, Arizona, and OCM BOCES in Syracuse, New York, are forging ahead by making a commitment to incorporate identified skills into their curricula plans. The skills, which fall into the categories of Personal and Social Responsibility, Digital-Age Literacy, and Learning and Thinking Skills include leadership, productivity, self-direction, teamwork, cultural competencies, global awareness, interactive communication, and systems thinking. The further challenge for educators is to determine how to reshape the current education structure to include the identified skills. Proponents of the framework, including 14 states that have made a commitment to the 21st Century Skills, are working to garner the support of the business community to support their efforts. As our country faces the complex political, technical, scientific, financial, and environmental issues of the future, advocates fervently believe that the time to take action is now. (www.p21.org)

Zero Tolerance Policy
School systems across the country, including the cities of Denver, Los Angeles, and Baltimore as well as Fairfax County, Virginia, are rethinking their use of a zero tolerance policy to address student infractions. The movement to review current policies is the result of unusually high suspension rates as well as community pressure to create alternatives to long suspensions and expulsions. As educators review their current practices, they are finding that the zero tolerance policy often results in lower academic achievement and, in some cases, an increase in the dropout rate. The concept of zero tolerance arose in the mid-1990’s when school districts became increasingly concerned about student safety. However, over time it became apparent that automatic consequences for student violations left little options for school personnel to consider the context of the misbehavior. Some studies have concluded that suspensions do not improve student behavior. A 2008 research study by the American Psychological Association, “found no evidence that the zero tolerance policies have a deterrent effect or keep schools safer.” As districts reevaluate their current policies, school leaders are putting into place a variety of “prevention-oriented initiatives” including anti-bullying programs and positive behavior interventions such as the restorative justice initiative, a model that promotes conflict resolution, the building of stronger relationships, and alternate approaches to wrongdoing by students. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/more-schools-are-rethinking-zero-tolerance/2011/05/26/AGSIKmGH_story.html)

Race to the Top
Secretary Duncan has proposed a new Race to the Top competition that would award $500 million for early childhood education aid. To qualify, states would be required to develop programs with specific standards and outcomes, methods to evaluate the success of their programs, and specific expectations for how teachers will carry out the expected learning experiences. Under the official title, “The Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge,” states would be awarded between $50 million and $100 million to carry out their proposals. The overall purpose of the initiative is to improve the quality of and access to early childhood learning and eliminate the inequities that currently exist in certain localities. In rewarding the grants, the Obama administration has indicated that it will pay particular attention to large rural populations which have felt slighted in previous federal grant awards. (https://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/index.html)

Homework and Grading Practices
In a June 27, 2011 decision, the Los Angeles Unified School District decreed that homework can count no more than 10% of a student’s final grade. The decision has been applauded by some who feel the decision will “level the playing field” for students who have difficulty competing out-of-school assignments, and decried by others who feel that it will encourage students to slack off assigned work or disregard homework completely. In a number of districts around the country, limits have been placed on the amount of homework students are assigned in order to give them more time for family-oriented activities or pursue other outside interests. Still other districts are looking at the quality of the homework being assigned. Revisions in homework policies have been instituted so that homework does not prevent a student from passing a course or overinflate a student’s final grade. (www1.ccboe.net/Gths/Documents/Tuesday%20Teaching%20Tools/homework.pdf)

The debate is also continuing about grading practices which often differ from school to school and teacher to teacher. The topic of grade determination has been addressed by many renowned educators including Thomas Guskey, Robert Marzano, Ken O’Connor, Rick Wormeli, and Doug Reeves. In their writings, they make strong cases for the elimination of certain grading practices including assigning zeroes, averaging grades, linking missing homework to a student’s final grade, and overemphasizing performance on a single major assignment or test. They are in agreement on the importance of providing meaningful and substantive feedback to students and then allowing students to resubmit improved work for evaluation. In addition, studies have concluded that the benefits of effective grading practices not only reduce failure rates but also improve student behavior, increase faculty morale, reduce the necessity for resources invested in remedial courses or course repeats, and lead to a reinvestment of funds for additional elective and advanced courses. The national discussion around the topics of homework and grading begs the question: Should schools closely examine their current homework and grading practices to determine the overall impact on student learning and student achievement? If the evidence points to problems that should be addressed, curtailed, or eliminated, then the conversations will be worth the time invested. (https://www.janesville.k12.wi.us/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=BqKqoYTBpdU%3D&tabid=2094)

The Future of Testing
A recent USA Today article with the headline “The Search for a New Way to Test Schoolkids,” examined the current testing structure in use across the United States. According to the article, the “massive testing infrastructure” costs $1.1 billion annually. The current testing regimen has revealed a series of problems including test security, narrowed school curricula, pressure on educators to achieve AYP, and the debate over whether to connect teacher evaluations to test scores. Leaders across the country are speaking out as they try to make sense of the testing situation which currently exists. Former Austin, Texas Superintendent Pat Forgione called the testing reports he received each spring “autopsies” because the results came too late to do anything meaningful for the students who took the tests. Tom Watkins, former Michigan state superintendent, has stated that “a large percentage of kids who leave school are leaving because they’re bored out of their minds and testing them more isn’t going to prevent that.” Dr. Watkins points out that Chinese educators, whose previous education model relied on top-down delivery focusing on memorization and standardized testing, currently focuses “almost exclusively on two things: creativity and innovation.”  He reports that the transition in China has taken place over the past decade while the U. S. has been grappling with No Child Left Behind. He concludes, “While we’re moving closer to their historical model, they’re looking at ways to pull away.”

So what lies ahead for educators in the testing arena? President Obama has stated, “Too often what we have been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools.” He further said that standardized tests should not be the only measure of student and school achievement, and that perhaps tests should not be administered every year but every few years instead. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing program has been in existence since the 1960’s and samples students in grades 4, 8, and 12 on a periodic basis. It has proven to be a reliable indicator of student progress in learning and since schools are chosen randomly, schools cannot prepare for the administration of the tests. Ann Cook, co-director of New York’s Urban Academy has said, “When Gallup does polls, they don’t ask everybody in the country what they think.” As Secretary Duncan has noted, he is searching for something new, something more secure, and something that makes sense. (https://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2011-03-18-schooltesting18_ST_N.htm)

As we begin the new school year, I suggest that you make an early New Year’s resolution. I challenge you to explore one or more of the topics in greater depth (or another topic that I have not addressed that is important) so you can be a better informed professional and a stronger instructional leader.

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:

Oliver, Bruce. “Hot Topics.” Just for the ASKing! August 2011. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2011 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.

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