Update on Jeffco’s Vision 2020 Planning Workshop #2

Thursday, Feb 19, was the 2nd of 4 workshops for Jeffco’s Vision 2020 plan development. We were divided into 9 tables averaging 5 or 6 people each.

The homework leading into this workshop was to talk to the community members we were representing, and to come up with our community’s top 5 list of competencies of a future Jeffco graduate.  These discussions were based on the output of the workshop #1 efforts in January.

Each person at each table discussed their input. Each table then came up with a synergized list of 5 competencies along with detail to begin to define each competency. Themes were very similar across all tables.

From there, each table was charged with creating a visual representation of their thinking, so we spent a few hours working out options for visuals. Lastly, the visuals were voted on by everyone.

Next steps:

  • The next workshop is March 19
  • Warren Tech students are going to work up professional samples of graphics of the visuals for us to look at at meeting 3. We will pick one which will be used to represent the school system’s vision.
  • Because so many of our competencies are so similar across the groups, the facilitator, Dan McMinimee, Syna Morgan, and others within the district are going to work out a proposed set of language to convey the competencies – a starting draft for the final language we will ultimately use. The community representatives will then work to finalize this language over the next two meetings.
  • Our homework for the 3rd meeting is to come up with a list of the top 3 implications for the district as we move towards trying to create a student that possesses the list of competencies. What needs to change within the district to create that student?  What tasks need to happen to move us in that direction?

If you have input, please feel free to post a reply and I will ensure it is heard.

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Community College: An Intro by Tom Hanks – Part 1 of a Series

I’m going to do a short series on community college.  This will be the first post, with an intro by Tom Hanks.  (Sounds pretty grandiose.)  President Obama recently said that he’d like to see community college free for anyone.  It’s a $60B price tag, so it’s not likely to happen (in my opinion).  Nonetheless, what he said should build more awareness about how community colleges fit within the overall framework of our education system.

Tom Hanks got his higher ed start at Chabot Community College.  Last month, he penned an op-ed for the New York Times on how the ability to go to community college impacted his life.  In his words, “I owe it all to community college”.  Here is the link for your reading pleasure.

Future parts of this series will discuss how community college is evolving and what community college in Colorado can offer.  For those not familiar with it, you may be very surprised.

Jeffco’s Vision 2020 Planning Project – An Overview & First Feedback

The Vision 2020 planning project for Jeffco Public Schools started in January with a broad set of community representatives there to help form the vision for the future of our school system.  I am involved because of my interest in education and because of my role with the Jeffco Performing Arts Advocacy Coalition.  Specifically, I am to provide perspective based on the importance of music, arts, and culture.  As with the other community representatives, I have been asked to reach out to as many people as possible through the advocacy coalition, and by other means, to ensure as broad-based a set of feedback as is possible.

Like many strategic planning processes, we are starting with visioning.  This work will take place January through May.  From the vision work, formal strategic planning will start in March and go through July.  Lastly, departmental plans, school plans, professional development plans and other detailed planning will roll out from there.

In our first meeting in January, we discussed the key changes that have happened in the world in the last 30 years.  The intent was to start thinking about how those changes affect what needs to be taught in our K-12 schools.  We then brainstormed the key competencies a future Jeffco graduate should possess.  We came up with a list of 55.  That was narrowed down by the end of the meeting to a top 20 list.

For our next meeting, which is this Thursday, we were asked to go talk to our respective communities and to create a top 5 list of key competencies.  Working with my community members, we have a list of 6 and we couldn’t decide which other one to drop. They are all important:

  1. Motivated & self-directed – Wants to always learn more.
  2. Creative and innovative thinker – Views issues from different perspectives, able to solve problems with creative solutions.
  3. Critical thinker – Effectively & efficiently takes in, processes, and draw conclusions from information.
  4. Cultural competency/global citizen – Possesses the ability to interact with and work effectively with people from all walks of life across the world. Possesses an understanding of the ever changing world in which we live.
  5. Skilled with content knowledge – Possesses knowledge about subjects such as science, math, English, finance, economics, and history. Understands when and where to look up content knowledge as needed.
  6. Accountability, morality, responsibility – Possesses the attributes of what we generally think of as a “good” person.

Each community representative will be bringing a similar list to Thursday’s meeting. From there, we will continue to refine these competencies and begin to fully define them.

What do you think are important competencies for a future high school graduate?

Major changes in the works for graduation requirements for Colorado K-12

The Denver Post is reporting that an advisory group is recommending major changes to graduation requirements for high school.  After reading the article multiple times, I must admit that I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the proposed changes.

On the positive side:

  • The requirements supposedly better align with our higher ed entrance requirements.
  • The requirements account for the fact that not everyone can or should have a one-size-fits-all approach for graduation.  People do have different interests and want different things out of life.  Allowing them to spend time learning what matters to them and to still be able to graduate is probably a good thing.

On the negative side:

  • Fundamentally challenging students less seems like a bad idea.
  • I feel that a basic fluency in science benefits all people.  That would be eliminated under the current proposal.
  • This would give school districts easy approaches to improve graduation rates vs. improving the education of students.  Should these changes be implemented, there needs to be in place mechanisms to ensure that districts don’t take the easy way out and make their graduation rates look better to the detriment of our students.  This could happen at a district and/or school level.

It’s obviously a very complex issue with no single right answer, and I’m sure we will hear more about it as the advisory committee finalizes its recommendations.

What is the best school for my child?

In my last posting, I discussed evaluating schools.  Hopefully, I’ve convinced you that there’s a lot more to it than just standardized test scores.  When you live in a district with open enrollment opportunities, how do you pick the best school for your child?  You know your child better than anyone else.  Here’s what I’d recommend.

  • Think about transportation.  If you enroll outside of your local school and your child can’t ride the bus, realize that you are signing up for years of transportation and/or carpooling.  Really, it’s a big decision.  You don’t want to start down this path and then have to bounce your child around schools because you can’t make it work.
  • Go and talk to the administration and teachers.  I’ve never heard of a school in a district with open enrollment which didn’t encourage, or at least allow, parents to come in and essentially interview the people who would be responsible for educating their child.
  • Make sure you talk to a variety of people: The principal, counselors, teachers – from multiple grades and across multiple subjects.  Find out how the school works, how well the school works, what they offer, and how they teach it.  Find out what’s recently been added, and what’s recently been taken away.  These can be indicators of trends.
  • Look at where the school feeds into.  If you are looking at an elementary school, look at where your child will go to middle and high school.  Regardless of where you live, your child will likely want to go with their friends from school to school.  Keep that in mind.
  • Lastly, yes, look at test scores.  While I would never let them entirely drive my decision, I would use them only as a cross check to ensure I wasn’t overlooking something big.

In our own case, we first visited an elementary school with great test scores.  When we got there, we saw a strong focus on reading, writing, and math.  All the desks were in rows and they had a very set curriculum.  For many kids, this might be a great environment – and the test scores said so.  However, my kid would have failed out.  I’m sure of it.  He was the product of a Montessori preschool, which was perfectly matched to his learning style.  He was self paced, hands on.  There were no desks.  Learning was through doing, not through rigid curriculum.  He had to be moving at all times.  Lined up desks would have caused him all sorts of problems at that age.

As I said at the start, you know your child better than anyone.  If you live in an open enrollment district, and can afford to transport your child every day, then take the time to get to know the schools you are considering.  Talk to the administrators and the teachers.  Look at how the school teaches, not just what the school teaches.  Use standardized test scores as a cross check that you haven’t missed something, but don’t let test scores make your decision for you.

What is the best school?

I’ll say it up front: Not a fan of standardized tests.  Yes, they have a place and a time, but the way we tend use them is not terribly effective.  They should be one of only several measures of a school’s effectiveness.  If you don’t believe me, take this example.  In Colorado, we had the statewide standardized test called the CSAP (we’re transitioning to new tests now).  It measured the usual: reading, writing, math, etc.  Sounds like what we should measure, after all, what kid can succeed in the world without those basic skills?  In addition to measuring kids, though, teachers and schools get measured as well.  And then they get funded or de-funded or to a large extreme, even shut down and the employees let go based on standardized test scores.  Sounds a little harsh, but hey, someone has to measure and make a decision, right?

Here’s where that simplistic view starts to break down:  Money makes a difference.  A huge difference.  The income of a family has a direct bearing on the success their child/children will have in school.  Why?  When you step back and think about it, it is somewhat intuitive.

  • Families with higher incomes can afford tutors
  • Families with higher incomes can afford one parent to stay home and work with the kids
  • Families with higher incomes don’t rely on the children also working so they can put meals on the table
  • Families with lower incomes may tend to be more transient – such as migrant workers and seasonal employees

I have walked through the mall at 9:00 pm and watched my wife greet one of her students.  The student wasn’t there because they were out with their friends, the student was there because they were cleaning the floors…so their family could afford to eat.  In that specific instance, my wife told me that same student had a test the next morning.  When would they find time to study?  That was a light bulb moment in my life.  Stories like this are not uncommon, conversely, they are very common.  How do you break that cycle of a lack of education for the children of families with lower incomes?  It’s clearly not by standardized tests and lowering funding for schools with poor results, yet that’s the way some school systems work.

The reality is that, like learning, there are many factors in what constitutes a good school vs. a bad school.  Might the school serving a poorer population be poorly run itself?  Absolutely.  But standardized test scores probably aren’t going to tell you that.  It requires observation and learned people to actually evaluate what’s going on.

I’ll leave you with two examples:

  1. When I lived in Georgia, there was a high school, we’ll call it high school “X”.  High school X served a poor demographic and did poorly on state standardized tests.  There was an article in the paper one year after the test results came out and it blasted high school X.  A couple months later, it was announced that high school X was a semi-finalist in the US Dept. of Education’s Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence program.  Why could this school, blasted for poor performance, be a semi-finalist for such a prestigious recognition?  Simply put, the teachers and the administration had developed tremendous programs for serving their community, and while they couldn’t compete with the schools serving the richer demographics, they could absolutely improve the quality of education for the students they had.  And they did.  What it took was analysis by experts, not a standardized test.
  2. Living in Colorado, we had the CSAP test for many years.  One year, after the results came out, I correlated the top 5 and bottom 5 performing high schools in my district to the percentage of kids on free or reduced lunches.  Guess what?  The top 5 performing high schools were the bottom 5 in percentage of kids on free/reduced lunches, in order.  Similarly, the bottom 5 performing high schools were the top 5, again in perfect order, of kids on free/reduced lunches.  It’s not a coincidence.  Money matters.  Incomes matter.

Convinced?  Hopefully so.  Measuring a school and the quality of education a student receives is so much more than standardized tests.

If you made it this far… thanks for reading!

Get involved in education

Our local school system, Jeffco Public Schools, has begun a strategic planning process starting with a four month visioning exercise called Vision 2020.  I feel very fortunate that I am leading a Performing Arts advocacy group and that we have been asked to help with the work over the next four months.  There are 65 community members involved covering a wide spectrum of the community.  The members include representatives of businesses, groups like mine, chambers of commerce, higher education, teachers, students, and people representing other areas of the community.

The work is critical.  We are trying to identify what competencies a student should have when they graduate, and subsequently, what the school system needs to provide to enable students to have these competencies.  It’s far more complicated than reading, writing, and arithmetic.  It’s far more complicated than being able to test well, or learn to the test.  Rather, we are looking at the global community and assessing what our students need to be able to do.  For example, they need to be able to think critically, to take in and efficiently process dynamic information, to be self starters, to be able to relate to a diverse community, and the list goes on and on.  Of course, reading, writing, and arithmetic are also critical, but if a student has the aforementioned competencies, shouldn’t the reading, writing, and arithmetic almost come automatically?

It’s going to be a fun journey and the work couldn’t be more important.  I’m thrilled to be a part of it.