Sunday, August 12, 2007

New School Year, Same Old Focus

This week, and for the last two, we’ve seen the longest streak of 90-degree weather in decades. Summer shows no signs of waning soon. Yet, for kids and teachers, summer is officially over. School has started.

When I was a student at Edinburgh I remember hating Labor Day. It was my least favorite holiday. The reason was that we had just started school after a long summer break. I was eager to get back into the swing of things, get to know my new teachers, and get reacquainted with some friends I hadn’t seen all summer. But just as school started, here we were on another vacation, albeit only a day.

That was back when school began the week before Labor Day. These days, as a teacher, the time between the beginning day of school and Labor Day Weekend seems painfully long.

I’m not really sure if there are any more days in the school year now or whether they are just distributed differently. Schools must conduct school for students on at least 180 days during the year. Teachers usually get a few more for meetings and record keeping.

In Indianapolis, a handful of students were supposed to return a month early, because their schools had failed the requirements of the dreaded No Child Left Behind Act. It sounds good, but is woefully flawed and can never really reach its lofty goals.

As a teacher, my contention is if students can’t learn the curriculum in 180 days, they probably won’t learn it in 210. It’s not a matter of total time at school; it’s a matter of time on task, focus, and parent involvement.

At any school, there are three groups of students, considered academically. There are those at the top who would learn regardless of the situation. The best thing teachers can do for them is not screw them up. Then there are those at the bottom of the ladder who show no inclination to climb it.

The vast majority of students are somewhere in the middle. They are certainly not going to learn on their own, but they are all open to being taught. These are the students who can be helped the most by a good teacher.

Obviously, there are teachers who have a special talent at reaching those students on the lower rungs of the ladder. But those teachers are so rare that when one emerges, they make movies about them (such as the Ron Clark Story). And when a classroom contains a mixed bag of students, from all three levels, the teacher who concentrates so much on inspiring the low-achieving students invariably under-educates the larger group of students in the middle, the ones who will benefit the most from their teachers’ attention.

I’m not advocating ignoring the severe underachievers. But we must acknowledge that, regardless of our good intentions, some of them are going to be left behind. There will be those who will drop out, those who will be incarcerated, and those who might struggle through the years, but never graduate.

The best thing teachers can do is to motivate the middle students to learn. If all students in the middle group could be encouraged to improve their standardized test scores by 10 percent, few schools would be in trouble with the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The students in the top group are already passing tests such as ISTEP+. Students at the bottom would still flunk it even if they did manage to increase their scores by 10 percent. So that large group in the middle is definitely the group to target.

Increasing the length of the school year will be of little or no value. Focusing our efforts on the area where we have the greatest impact on students will make the most difference in improving school performance.

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