Wednesday, September 02, 2009

IC School Board Needs Fresh Thinking

September 2, 2009, 9:00 a.m.
For earlier, often related, blog entries, see:

Nicholas Johnson, "School Board Governance: First Things First; School Board Forum Producers Charis-Carlson and Yates Create Hit, But Where Was Candidates' Awareness of "Job One": Their Governance Model?" September 4, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "IC School Board Needs Fresh Thinking; Swisher Starting Dialogue,"

Nicholas Johnson, "School Boundaries Consultant Folly; Tough Boundary Questions Are for Board, Not Consultants or Superintendent, Plus: What Consultant Could Do," August 28, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "UI VPs and ICCSD Consultants; Concerns About Consultants and Vice Presidents," August 14, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "Cluster Schools: Potential for IC District?" June 3, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, "School Boundaries; Tonight's Schools Meeting and the more to come,"
March 30, 2009;

Nicholas Johnson, " Demolition Disaster; Come Let Us Reason Together," March 10, 2009 (contains links to additional sources);

Nicholas Johnson," Roosevelt: Valuing Our Schools; Process and Substance in School Facilities Decisionmaking," March 9, 2009 (contains "Earlier, Related Writing" section with links to seven additional sources).
Swisher Starting Dialogue
(brought to you by*)

There's a school board election a week from yesterday -- September 8. There are six candidates running for three seats, and many multiples of those numbers of issues for the new board to address. Voter participation in school board elections is notoriously low, but this is one year you really ought to get informed and vote.

I've written elsewhere, and at length, over the years about our local K-12 issues, problems, challenges, opportunities, and solutions. So I'm not about to repeat -- or even link to -- all of that here.

What I want to suggest this morning is a ICCSD need that doesn't get much discussion: the need for fresh thinking, for new ideas, minds that are open to others' "best practices."

From last night's forum -- and there's another Thursday evening (tomorrow) at the Public Library -- it looks like Sarah Swisher is our best bet for a little improvement on that score locally.

She demonstrated the leadership to at least raise for discussion the idea of year-round schools, and magnet schools -- ideas the others were forced to respond to by saying they were "interesting ideas" they'd like to find out more about!

Bear in mind, no one's saying the District ought to rush out and implement every good K-12 idea from the last 40 years. What Swisher seems to be saying, and I've been saying, is that we need to at least do the research to find out what they are, discuss them, and then modify and try as pilot projects those that make sense to us.

We're so self-satisfied and smug about how great our schools are. They do turn out a good product for the most part; among the best in Iowa on any one of a number of measures. But at least a part of that result has something to do with the school children in any university community who come into kindergarten. There's a limit to how much harm any school system could do to them; most will look like outstanding graduates when they leave. And I'd say it's pretty clear we're doing them more good than harm.

But what else could we be doing -- or at least learning about and discussing as possibilities? Here are a few ideas:

- magnet schools (with a focus on science, foreign language or the arts, that could attract (not compel) attendance by students from all over the District into schools that would benefit from that infusion)

- team teaching, with the flexible scheduling and classroom walls that can make it easier (something to think about before talking to architects)

- smaller high schools, and "schools within schools"

- charter schools (part of the school district, but with a mission and administration of their own)

- year round schools (which still have three months of vacation time, but throughout the year)

- shifting the high school day to start later in the morning, and last longer into the afternoon (with the same total hours per day)

- more hours per day, more days per year, more homework (something that's done by many of the countries whose kids' test scores put us to shame)

- the recommendations of the National Commission on the High School Senior Year (including more opportunities for enrollment at the University of Iowa or Kirkwood, job shadowing, and out-of-school independent research projects -- thereby, among other things, reducing the over crowding)

- in-school clinics (e.g., dental and medical)

- a volunteer coordinator (to make it easier for those who'd like to volunteer in the schools, along with a minimum of training)

- more emphasis on all students' physical fitness and intramural sports (with relatively less on the competitive sports' super stars)

This is just quickly off the top of my head as I go off to teach a morning class. There are hundreds of ideas out there -- many of which have been proven to be of value, and have been adopted by school districts all over the country.

Of course, some of what I've listed we're already doing; but perhaps we could do it more, or better, or differently -- or more effectively, efficiently and economically.

Board members are not only the best ones to do this job, they are in many ways the only ones who can get these discussions started. Our administrators and teachers more than have their hands full. ("When you're up to your waist in alligators, its difficult to find the time to think about how you might drain the swamp.")

Even the Army advises we should "Be all that you can be."

However good we are, shouldn't we, too, aspire to "be all that we could be"?

It looks like Sarah Swisher has already proven herself to be someone who can get that discussion going.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

# # #

1 comment:

Jim Kucharczyk said...

I live in Connecticut and don't get to vote, but I applaud you and Ms. Swisher for asking questions about how high performing districts can do better. It can get awful comfortable for those top five percentile districts, just a tweak here and tuck there and we can continue to report great test scores without challenging fundamental assumptions or pushing ourselves as hard as we push our teachers and administrators to demonstrate leadership.

Let me add a suggestion of my own to your list - a technology curriculum that understands spreadsheet manipulation is more than vocational training and instead helps provide facility with 21st century analytical tools.