Every year when I go to the American Association of School Administrators conference it's a great time to hear a state of K-12 education from the people who should know, the ones running the country's school systems. As usual, this year's three days were filled with great speakers and interesting sessions.
At one point during his superb half-day session about how to get accountability right, Douglas Reeves, chairman of the Center for Performance Assessment, stopped and tossed out this gem: If you do one thing different in your district to improve children's performance, teach more non-fiction writing. While most schools overload on fiction writing, Reeves said the skills needed to craft a coherent non-fiction essay help sharpen students' minds as well as boosting their writing and reading ability.
He also said the single-highest class failure rate in high school is ninth-grade Algebra I. (It's also the best predicator, besides pregnancy, of whether a student will drop out.) You may have known that, but you may not know the best indicator of a student's success in that class. It's not eighth-grade math, but eighth-grade English. As Reeves said, "Algebra I tests are reading tests with numbers."
Then there was talk of teacher tenure. Every administrator has bemoaned how difficult it can be to fire teachers with tenure. But Tom Trigg, superintendent of Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kan., is doing something about it. Regarding tenure, he says his district is "going from a default yes, to a default no." What this means is simply that instead of giving a teacher tenure unless there's a reason not to, this first-time superintendent is denying tenure unless the teacher in question can make a strong enough case to have earned it.
In one of the odder sessions I went to, Larry Molacek, superintendent of South Tama County Community School District in Iowa, spoke passionately about how his district was able to fend off a professional political consultant hired to defeat a school bond issue. Molacek said the consultant wrote fake letters to the editor, challenged the work of his own poll watcher to muddy the issue of fair voting, and even charged the superintendent with a fictitious crime, then alerted newspapers when Molacek was questioned by police. (He was never charged with the alleged crime.)
Like last year, and probably next year, No Child Left Behind continued to cast a large shadow over much of the conference. Superintendent of the Year Monte Moses, of Cherry Creek (Colo.) Public Schools, was one of several to speak about how the law ignores students' continuous growth. Districts should concentrate on how children do from year to year, as well as looking at third-grade tests each year, he said.
Reeves chimed in on this topic, saying there was a lot of "invisible excellence" in districts throughout the country. This excellence comes when districts take underperforming students and raise their test levels more than one grade level in a year, but don't bring them up to proficiency. The gains made are important, of course, but using the law as a judge, districts get no credit for this hard work.
Lastly, AASA Executive Director Paul Houston shared two of his thoughts on the law. He said there's a new Golden Rule when it comes to education: "Less gold, more rules." While he praised the "noble goals" of the law, he added, "In the history of mankind, no one has ever been beaten into excellence."