Students, teachers, and parents in Illinois middle and high schools are now taking part in a massive study designed to provide a detailed portrait of each school’s inner workings. The “Illinois 5Essentials Survey: Organizing Schools for Improvement,” as it’s called, was launched by the Illinois State Board of Education on Feb. 1 and runs through March 31.
Researchers at the University of Chicago designed the survey and have administered it locally to schools in Maryland, Massachusetts, and Michigan. This is the first time it is being conducted on a statewide scale, and results are expected this summer.
“The State Board has long understood that test scores alone do not offer the full picture of schools and learning,” says State Superintendent of Education Christopher A. Koch on the state board’s website. “The Illinois 5Essentials Survey will finally help us paint that fuller picture of learning conditions and guide local and state improvement initiatives so that every student has access to a world class education.”
The 15-minute survey, intended to be taken during school hours, asks questions about five “indicators”:
• Supportive Environments • Ambitious Instruction
Those are some good points indeed, and four of the five could be described as “wrap-around services” that are important to student learning but that actually manifest themselves outside the boundaries of a classroom or any other medium by which instruction is delivered. Their absence from a school system can shoot any educational objective in the foot.
School leaders are not only principals, but looking at the qualities of a good principal will get us started. The New York Times ran a column in 2011 that explained several qualities that make a principal a good one in the public schools. Even though the newspaper only allows unsubscribed guests to read so many articles per month, it’s worth using one of your freebies if you’re not subscribed.
According to the column’s author, Michael Winerip, a good principal
- Knows all too well what it’s like to be a teacher
- Is comfortable sitting in a cafeteria with 800 students eating rubbery food
- Has his/her own style
- Focuses on the signal and not the noise; helps teachers do the same
- Sets high standards—for him/herself and for the school
- Works with union leadership or fights them in the kids’ interest
- Uses his/her own money for the school
- Is pragmatic and stays above the frays schools find themselves in
- Has a very long To Do List and gets to every item
- Loves the school and the aspirations of public schools
- Leads by example
Teachers aren’t known for their collaborative ability. They tend to stress autonomy in their professional training, which isn’t exactly the opposite of collaboration, but it’s pretty close.
About 30 years ago, a biology course I took in college was team-taught. It was entitled “Organisms,” which included half a course about plants and half a course about animals. So, the university brought in a botanist to teach us the plant half and a physiologist to teach us the animal half. They each took turns and didn’t really work together, just as separate parts of the same whole.
Still today, even teachers of the same subject at the same school often don’t work together. They may share lesson plans for certain units, but when they return to their respective classrooms, both find themselves autonomous. For example, I heard the other day from one biology teacher in Maryland that when students came to his class from another biology teacher’s class, they struggled. The other teacher, it turned out, was allowing students to take as many make-up tests as they needed to get a good score, and this teacher was playing it a little closer to the book.
Attempts at collaboration aren’t new, of course. It’s always been considered a good idea. For instance, there’s a record of a bunch of teachers getting together at the University of Chicago in 1939 to launch a three-year project that had the aim of collecting in a central repository all the good research about teaching effectiveness. The goal was to select and train teachers more effectively. The more things change …
Today, the Internet can serve as a central repository, but there’s no central librarian to catalog the research findings, lesson plans, or whatever else our schools could do well to collect. Sometimes, we just can’t separate the wheat from the chaff. For example, we have sites like LessonPlanet, but that just lets users sort the materials by the number of downloads or ratings and then read comments about the materials written by other teachers. There’s no real collaboration here, just capitalism.
Define “involved.” About 10 years ago, a middle school principal near Dayton welcomed a trouble-maker into his office for the umpteenth time, I’m told via the Dayton Daily News. In lieu of a suspension, the principal offered a deal: the trouble-maker’s mother could spend an entire day at school, shadowing her son.
The boy didn’t like the idea very much, but he didn’t want another suspension and thus agreed to the deal. The results were outstanding—so much so that the principal published a book entitled Please, Don’t Call My Mother!: How Parents and Schools Can Team Up to Get Kids Back on Track. Some suggestions emerged:
- Read to children starting at a very early age
- Lead by example: Make your child’s education a priority in your life
- Designate a specific time for your child to study in a quiet environment every day
- Encourage reading and study even if your child doesn’t have homework
- Ask your school for a weekly report on how your child is doing
- Talk to your child to see how school is going
- Try sitting down at night and helping your child with schoolwork
A supportive environment might include everything from healthy breakfast sandwiches to student safety, from transportation to tax levies, or from fun extracurricular activities to field trips. We won’t try to nail it down any further, because if the survey takes 15 minutes to complete, my hunch is 12 of those minutes are devoted to the “supportive environment” part.
The new Common Core in math and reading and the Next Generation Science Standards are ambitious. In fact, going back to that team-teaching idea discussed above, the Common Core and new science standards may require lots of team-teaching unless we want to send all a school’s teachers back to get a master’s degree in science or mathematics.
The science standards—which haven’t been released yet, because they’re only in the second-draft phase—are flawed in many important ways. For example, chemistry is all but gone. It’s included as part of “physical sciences,” but right now, physics and chemistry are two separate classes in high school. Will we need to re-certify teachers? And even there, the standards lack reference to several important concepts in chemistry that would be included in any high school honors chemistry course.
In the lower grades, there’s no way a typical elementary or middle school science teacher knows as much about Earth science as the draft standards call for. Districts may need to use resource teachers for Earth science if they want to cover all the material.
This is the only indicator in the 5Essentials that strictly develops inside classrooms. Oddly enough, this will be the hardest one for schools to master.