Vail Daily column: Reaching higher standards
August 20, 2014
This year, we are excited to start implementing the tactics expressed in last year’s visioning document, “Unparalleled Altitude: A Globally Inspired Vision for Eagle County Schools.” In surveys we conducted this spring, 74 percent of the community and 79 percent of our staff agreed that the ideas in the report are the right direction for the district.
We all want internationally competitive high school graduates. Our kids are as smart and capable as any in the world, and we want them to have a world-class education from pre-school to high school. When they leave our care, we want them to not just be ready for college or careers, but we want them to be excited and optimistic about their futures and able to appreciate all the wonders life has to offer!
We took some preliminary steps last year. We upped the ante on teacher recruitment for incoming educators this year, and it paid off! The district had nearly 150 more applicants for teaching jobs than in previous years, and we pulled recruits from some of the best teacher preparation institutions in the nation. I’m pleased to welcome really talented, passionate educators into our community. Foundationally, the best way to improve student outcomes is by providing them the best possible teachers. Principals have shared with me that they’ve found the best teachers in years for hard-to-fill positions like math and science. We need them and are thankful to have them!
Now, we’re focusing on three big ideas: teaching all students to high standards; customizing instruction for each student; and empowering front-line educators. I know this sounds a little like “inside baseball,” but it’s important for the community to be part of our approach, so bear with me as I take them one at a time.
Teaching all students to high standards. This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s deceptively tricky. Teachers are compassionate people. They love students and parents. A tendency can develop to sort kids by initial ability and develop unofficial standards of performance for various groups. Think of the student that is learning English. It would be easy to discount his or her ability to score on par with a student who is a native English speaker on a literature exam, right? We have to guard against that thinking, and instead support such a student with more urgent and specialized instruction to accelerate their ability to meet the same high standards we have for our top performers. This approach has every student reaching for the top rung and not just as far as they can reach at the moment.
Inherent in high standards are high expectations. This is where parents make the difference. We are raising our expectations for student achievement to globally benchmarked levels. We need you to do the same. Encourage your child. Build up their confidence. Eliminate harsh criticism and opt instead for support. They can do anything you expect them to do because they want nothing more than to make you proud. It’s little stuff, really. Don’t agree with them that their homework is “too hard.” Tell them instead, “I know you can do it.”
Customizing instruction for each student. Naturally, we do this all the time. The difference this year is in ensuring that all of our schools and teachers are following best practices, rooted in scientific evidence about teaching and learning, when it comes to tailoring instruction for each student. If a child is not on grade level, then we will be surrounding them with the help to get them back on grade level as fast as possible, and then at least keep them on grade level while supporting them to go even further.
What about the kids who aren’t struggling or even those who are talented and gifted? This same practice identifies those needing new challenges and also supports them. In essence, it is a consistent, repeatable set of procedures that enable teachers to tailor instruction to the individual needs of all students. Most students will grasp concepts as a group and thrive. Some will need extra help and some will need extra challenge. The goal is that all are appropriately supported to meet our challenging and globally benchmarked expectations.
You can help here, too. Don’t perceive extra help as being judgmental or unwarranted. Work with your child’s teacher to love and support him or her toward achievement. It’s OK to fall behind or be behind — it happens. It’s not OK to stay there.
Empowering front-line educators. Too often, schools have been guilty of taking state or district determined mandates and pushing them on front-line teachers and calling that “professional development.” Often, this approach doesn’t directly align with what teachers really need to help their particular students. We’re inverting this approach to empower our front-line teachers to meet as groups to address the unique needs of their schools and student groups. Schools will be looking at a variety of measures and data about their students to identify areas of need. They’ll also loop in the unique qualities of their students and then problem-solve for improvement as a team. District staff will assist with solutions and target training to areas of need.
The big idea here is acknowledging that the people working closest to our kids know the most about them and what to do to support their students. We respect their professional judgment and are intentionally empowering the people closest to the work to make decisions for their kids.
Collectively, we’re setting higher standards, providing tailored student support and treating our educators with the professional dignity they deserve. This focuses the bulk of our energies right where they need to be: helping students reach international standards and achieve outcomes on par with any kid in the world.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.