Sunday, September 30, 2012

So all students can learn at high levels

We have enjoyed a great start to the 2012-13 school year in Needham.  Just before teachers headed back to class to greet eager learners, we met together as a staff to talk about the year ahead.  Following are excerpts of my comments to the faculty and staff on September 4th:

We do these things, we confront difficult challenges, we establish and prioritize goals so all students can have an opportunity to learn and achieve and create a life and a future that will enrich the child personally and enhance the broader community with a capable, caring, and active citizenry.  We do these things  So all students can learn at high levels.

Allow me to unpack three of these ideas today and share why they will require our time and attention in the coming year.

More than ever we can leverage the integration of technology into the classroom to improve instruction.  This community has invested in the technology infrastructure and the technical staff necessary to keep us connected.  A few high school teachers and students are involved in online and blended learning experiences.  Teachers are integrating Twitter and other web-based tools into the curriculum.  An 8th grade cluster at Pollard will have access, 24/7 to an iPad which they will pilot as both a technology tool and as an extension of their learning beyond the classroom. The pilot is one way for us to see how we might stimulate student engagement, creativity, and promote innovative classroom experiences.  As one veteran 8th grade teacher put it last year after using iPads in her classroom for a term:   “There is no question that this tool levels the playing field for my students and that they are empowered to speak up and learn more. I saw all students immerse themselves in learning in ways I have never experienced.”  An 8th grader reported: “I really learned a lot from using the iPad. I am more organized in my learning and I feel more independent at school.”

It is clear that technology tools will become increasingly applicable to classroom use and allow greater, flexible, and self-directed learning opportunities. We simply can’t ignore the reality that our students, often referred to as digital natives, have the skills, mindset, and expectation that the classroom environment will be as responsive, creative, collaborative, and accessible as their social and home environments have become. We can and should nurture a classroom learning environment that integrates technology with the skill and wisdom of a caring adult.  And why do I believe this is important?

So all students can learn at high levels.

In Massachusetts, the landscape around teacher supervision and evaluation is changing. For the first time next school year in Needham, all educators, including teachers, principals, nurses, counselors, and even the superintendent, will be evaluated annually.  The School Committee will be expected to negotiate a teacher contract which includes a supervision and evaluation system based on the new regulations that involve multiple and brief classroom visits, goal setting, the use of student data to demonstrate educator growth, and eventually the use of written feedback from students and parents to inform teacher practice.  The emphasis is no longer on how the teacher performs, it is in how students grow and learn.  Teachers will collaborate each year with principals about areas for student growth and then, through goal setting, be held accountable for that growth.

Although educator supervision and evaluation is about to undergo a huge overhaul, the Needham Schools, due to the efforts of several risk-taking and incredibly smart teachers and administrators, is well positioned to meet this challenge head on.  Last year teachers and administrators at Hillside and High Rock piloted a mini observation model and this year, in partnership with the Needham Education Association, an additional 35 teachers throughout the district and all administrators will pilot the model program and see what we can learn.

Here is what I believe about teacher evaluation:  The goal of any system should be to assist a teacher to grow, learn, and experiment. It should not primarily be designed to manage the underperforming teacher or simply become a bureaucratic exercise that is reluctantly completed by harried administrators. Teaching is a challenging and complex endeavor, and the system should be designed to provide tools, resources, feedback, and modeling to help a teacher, particularly a new or struggling teacher, to succeed in the classroom. The process should provide ample encouragement for teachers to take risks and create new and innovative lessons for students. And why?

So all students can learn at high levels.

Needham teachers offer excellent programs and educational support for students with special education needs.  In an effort to ensure each school and classroom has an additional level of support and organization, this year we will launch a new special education leadership model that we believe will allow us to become more efficient with limited funds and make certain all students have the resources they need for success.  Beginning this year at the elementary and middle school levels, each school will have a special education coordinator who will collaborate with the principal and staff and work with students and families to provide for and support student needs.

We did not create this model because it was mandated or because we were not meeting student needs.  Rather, with the support of the School Committee we are implementing this structure because we want to build a more cohesive program of response, support, professional development, co-teaching, and collaboration that strengthens student achievement.

Other plans underway will complement the work of our special educators:

-A preK-12 Response to Intervention—or RtI—model will build each school’s capacity to respond appropriately when a child struggles; if we are successful, fewer students will be identified as requiring special education services.

-We are introducing the concept of cultural proficiency into our work so students of color, English Language Learners, gay and lesbian students, and socio-economically disadvantaged youth may feel included, encouraged, and supported in a school culture that is tolerant, aware, and equitable.

-We are increasing literacy support at the secondary level and piloting a math coaching model at Broadmeadow to meet both the needs of struggling and gifted students.

And why these particular activities?

So all students can learn at high levels.

I highlight these particular initiatives not because they are more important than all the others but because I am convinced they will help influence, shape, and complement all of our work in the Needham Schools.  They fit within the framework of our goals, are consistent with our core values, and if we approach them with creativity, purpose, and intent, we can be successful—and our students will soar!

By the way, you should see your work and your responsibility in all of this.  These tasks and initiatives are not for someone else, a different department, grade level, or school.  Technology integration, educator evaluation, and re-envisioning how we assist special education students… all of us have a role to play; all of us are accountable.  And if we work together, share our struggles, and even accept that we may do the work imperfectly at times, our students will thrive.   

Not just some of them, or even many of them—but all of them.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry I missed the start of school session, but happy to read it here. Looking forward to this work this year.