While a group of staff members developed options for the 2014–15 school calendar and we began the process of narrowing it down to one, I was asked by a parent why we had so much time built in for staff development.
The parent spoke of the hardships of childcare on half-days and the frustration with keeping students in school until mid-June. I clearly remember those days when I had school-age children. While the number of days may seem like a lot, I want to assure you that it is necessary and well-used, and is making a “real” difference in terms of student achievement.
I thought back to a commentary I had written in The Journal in October 2011. It was written to answer the questions about “what teachers do on the days the students have off?”
I would like to include a couple of paragraphs from back then, because I believe it is so important and it is essentially the answer to the parent question of “Why build so many teacher inservice days into our calendar?”
Teachers are working together to improve instruction. It requires not only improving “what” is taught, but also improving “how” it is taught. I have asked that those involved in instruction in the Platteville School District begin the process of collaboratively developing answers to four questions: What do we want our students to know and be able to do? How will we know that they have learned these concepts and have acquired these skills? What will we do for the students who have not learned these concepts and acquired these skills during the initial classroom instruction? What will we do if they have learned and acquired these skills before the majority of the students in the class are ready to move on?
The key word in all of these questions is the word “we.” It cannot be done in the individual classroom. In order to improve overall student achievement, we need to have an outstanding preK–12 program, not just standout classrooms here and there. The only way to do that is for grade-level teachers to combine their expertise and agree that it shouldn’t matter which classroom a student is in, all teachers of that grade are teaching these same concepts and skills and are using the same measures to figure out what has been learned by the individual students. The same is true for teachers that teach a specific course, such as Algebra or seventh-grade Language Arts.
The word “we” also comes into play across grade levels. Third-grade teachers need to work with second-grade teachers and fourth-grade teachers. Biology teachers need to work with eighth-grade science teachers and chemistry teachers and so on and so on.
As difficult as it is to schedule meetings with four or five different people at a time outside of the work day, imagine doing it for many people across multiple buildings. The most efficient and effective way of doing that is to actually schedule a time within the work day to engage in improving student achievement.
So where are we now? A little depends on which grade-level and which subject area. We have made headway on all four questions and recently, we have been focusing on the question “How will we know that they have learned these concepts and have acquired these skills?”
There is urgency about our work. Starting with next year, the state required assessment for our students will change dramatically. In grades three through eighth, students will be taking a computer assessment called “Smarter Balanced” in English/Language Arts and Math. There is a shift in emphasis from content to demonstration of skill. You can go to www.smarterbalanced.org/sample-items-and-performance-tasks/ and actually try your hand at what students will be asked to do.
At the high school level, all of our juniors will be required to take the ACT. If you remember in the past, this test was only for those students who were planning on going to a four-year college. Ninth- and 10th-grade students will be taking ACT Explore and ACT PLAN. These tests are based on the ACT and will give us good information about what areas of our students need additional support in leading up to the ACT.
In addition, all of our 11th-grade students will take WorkKeys, a job skill assessment. We know that eventually, all of our students will be in the workforce (as a parent, I sure hope that is the case) and will have to demonstrate “career readiness skills.” You can try some of the sample test items yourself at www.act.org/workkeys/assess/sample.html.
To answer the question about where we are: Exhausted, frustrated, committed, determined, ready to give up some days, a “we got this” attitude the next. In other words, just another day in education. High expectations for students start with high expectations for ourselves. We have shifted gears in our professional development from administrator-led to teacher-led.
In the previous two school years, we were “spinning our wheels” a little as we struggled to take all the different changes and apply them to the classroom. Last summer, we pulled together a group of talented staff recommended by their principals. It included a representative from each grade level and a representative from each subject area at the elementary level, middle school level, and high school level. This group receives a small stipend for stepping into the role of being a “teacher leader” and as a group, they decide what we do on our professional development days and they work directly with the rest of the staff to support them and guide them in the continuing process of answering those four questions. After each inservice, I meet with this curriculum leadership group and we process how the time went and then plan next inservice.
To the original question of why we need all those days scheduled for inservice: To make sure that our students have every opportunity, not just to be taught, but to actually learn the concepts and skills necessary to be both “college and career ready.”
The Community Corner is a weekly column of opinion written by guest columnists UW–Platteville Chancellor Dennis Shields; Platteville School District Superintendent Connie Valenza; Platteville Regional Chamber Executive Director Kathy Kopp; Main Street Program Director Jack Luedtke; State Rep. Travis Tranel, Platteville City Manager Larry Bierke and Police Chief Doug McKinley.