February 14, 2005

An Example That Should Inspire

Marc Comtois

Julia Steiny provides an example of a school that has improved through the work of its teachers.

When the Rhode Island state authorities designated North Kingstown's Stony Lane Elementary only "moderately performing" last year, the school staff was miffed. Indeed, they were so not-okay with the label, brainstorming about how to ramp up their students' performance dominated their meetings with each other.

This year, Stony Lane was designated high-performing, improving and a Regents Commended School. Whew! That was quick. But that's what a school can do if lots of different subsets of the school community are regularly talking over all the things, big and small, that might make a difference.

Steiny also gave an example of how the turnaround occurred. The main vehicle was communication.
I recently crashed an ongoing meeting in which each grade level, except kindergarten, talked with the teachers working with the children at the grade level below about how to strengthen their program. First, the kindergarten teachers talked with the first-grade teachers, and after an hour they left and the second-grade teachers sat down with the first- grade teachers, and so on and on until the fifth grade had finished its say.

I witnessed the changing of the guard when the first-grade teachers left and the third-grade teachers joined grade two. After a certain amount of shuffling and getting coffee, a very take-charge second-grade teacher named Brenda Glover said: "Okay, we're here to find out what you need from us." She paused a moment, then quickly amended: "And don't say math facts."

The third-grade teachers looked up, glanced at one another and said quite emphatically: "Math facts." Everyone in the group either groaned or laughed. But they went on to explore a variety of ways of practicing and re-enforcing the basics of arithmetic. Second-grade teacher Diane Henault mentioned that "Every week we're trying to get the families to work on math facts. And every single morning, right after announcements, we do 42 problems in three minutes. I'm trying to get the answers to be automatic. My question to you is: can I start letting some of them touch multiplication?"

Before that question could be answered, Rose Cameron, third-grade teacher, asked if the second-grade teachers mix together problems requiring both addition and subtraction? Well, it turns out that they don't, at least not very often. Cameron says, "I'd really appreciate it if you did mix more because I have a lot of children who don't even see the signs. They all need to go back and check to see what the problem is really asking of them. Even the really smart ones." The second-grade teachers look at one another, nod, shrug, murmur assent and make a quick note. They'll mix the functions more. Done deal. Crack closed.

These conversations across the grade-level seams went on all day, and in this way all sorts of small, but important alignments take place.

It heartens me to see changes being implemented. What is worth remembering is that this process was prompted by a negative report by an oversight authority under the spectre of state and national standards, such as President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act. As the example of Stony Lane shows, criticism can motivate and inspire. So, though they may have griped about the evaluation process and its results, the teachersl put in a genuine effort to "prove them wrong." They succeeded and preserved their reputation while at the same time putting in place a process that benefitted the consumer of their product -- the children. All that parents ask is that their kids get the best education possible, no matter what inspires it or how it is effected. The teachers at Stony Lane are to be commended.

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I wish I could be inspired. The description provided here is only the most fundamental first step of what should already been happening for the last 40 years! Educational research shows that the steps taken here (and many others not mentioned) are the first baby steps in quality education. That they were not being done before--and being led by the administration--provides evidence of the poor state of the schools....

Posted by: Mark Duerr at February 14, 2005 3:01 PM

Yes, and it says something that we are finally doing the fundamentals, doesn't it? However, in a state in which unions excercise power like nowhere else since the 1950's, it only seems right that we ARE 40 years behind the times. Thanks for the comment.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at February 14, 2005 3:10 PM


it's awfully easy and simple to blame the unions, isn't it?

why don't you put a little less effort in blaming unions for the shortfalls and start placing the blame where it belongs.

1) too little funding. Many teachers don't even have the supplies to do the job. "No Child Left Behind", while it has it's good points, particularly that it's beginning to give some accountability, isn't addressing this. Indeed, if a school is labelled as "poor performing", instead of revamping, funding and improving it, the act actually ENCOURAGES the pulling of the students on a quasi-voucher system and placing them in other schools. THAT, my friend is no solution. That's doubling up the problem.
2) too little parental participation, in fact, how about looking at the total apathy that parents (in general) have toward education. The prevalent attitude of parents is "teach my child!" without any thought to the fact that a child's first teacher and indeed, most important teacher is the parent.
3) poor administration on so many levels, from the federal all the way down to the schools. This is being worked on, but there is much room for improvement. Many times, the politics of the situation are outweighing the need for REAL improvement.

The problems are complex. Unions are the least of the issues at hand.

Posted by: Jim S at February 15, 2005 11:17 AM

I agree that the problems are complex. And it is easy to blame the unions for unrealistic expectations in their bargaining positions. Teachers are well-paid in this state, many parents and taxpayers feel its time that children's scholastic performance starts to reflect that.

As far as NCLB, and related to the above, I understand there are funding problems, but couldn't some of this be alleviated by less education money going to pay teacher's salaries and benefits? Additionally, it's my understanding that under at least some of the standards set forth by the state or federal government (though not necessarily NCLB) schools have a period of time to show improvement. For instance, my daughter's school has reached milestones that are required to have been reached in 2011. You imply that at the first sign of noncompliance, that's it. I don't believe that's the case. Nonetheless, if the children are helped by being pulled from a bad school, isn't that the goal? We can't forget that this is not about keeping the teacher's or school administration or the state comfortable, it's about providing kids with the best education possible.

Having attended PTO, Parent/Principal nights (work to rule is in effect in Warwick...) and School Committee meetings, I can attest that not enough parents take an active part in their children's education. However, looking back at my younger days, the same dynamic was true when I was a kid. I was lucky enough to have parents who were among that core group of parents who always seemed to have been involved. in school functions. However, how exactly can this acknowledged problem be addressed? How can parents be forced into participation? On this one, I'm not sure.

Poor administration is a problem and always has been. Such is the case when a bureaucracy is involved, be it local, state or federal. More layers = more problems. In an ideal world, states and localities would dictate the standards and have more immediate control over the course of the education of the kids in their communities. Unfortunately, in Rhode Island, it seems that the educational needs of the children has taken a back seat to other matters, be they political or financial. It's time that changed. If the example I pointed to at the Stony Brook school is any indication, it looks like we just may be turning the corner.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at February 15, 2005 4:24 PM