Panelists weigh in on high school reform in Summit County | SummitDaily.com
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Panelists weigh in on high school reform in Summit County

Janice Kurbjun
Summit Daily News

A myriad of statistics show America’s high schools students aren’t able to compete in an information-rich and globally relevant world. Today’s graduates don’t stack up against peers in other countries. And because of that, high schools across the country – including Summit High School – are looking toward reform.

Summit High School officials are looking at implementing a new schedule, equal access to classes for students of all achievement levels and standards-based grading, which reinvents the way a student demonstrates his or her knowledge, as paths toward increased student achievement. Though Summit County students tend to perform better than their peers across the state, there’s still improvement to be made, administrators say.

To help shed light on the national movement, a group of panelists gathered Tuesday night at Summit Middle School to share insight from a variety of perspectives. About 40 to 50 community members were present.

District administrators will use the observations and suggestions from the meeting as they work toward reform.

Millie Hamner, current House District 56 representative and former superintendent of Summit Schools, mediated the event. Answering her own question about the most compelling reasons to change high school practices, she noted that 75 percent of the U.S. population of age to serve in the military can’t, because they don’t meet eligibility requirements of health, criminality or having a high school diploma.

And panelist Tim Westerberg – a former Colorado high school principal and now an educational consultant – shared more statistics backing up the need for widespread high school reform:

>In 2005, 60 percent of U.S. manufacturing companies surveyed expressed dissatisfaction with graduates’ preparedness for entry-level jobs.

>In 2009, 26 percent of seniors performed below the ‘basic’ reading level on the National Assessment of Education Progress.

>43 percent of community college students require remediation.

>29 percent of students at public four-year colleges require remediation.

>95 percent of students in remedial courses reported that they did most of all of the work assigned to them in high school, and more than half said they’d taken the most challenging courses offered by their high school. Nearly four of five students listed a high school GPA of 3.00 or higher.

Westerberg said the data shows that even students who perform well and believe they’re ready for college, aren’t.

“When I’m concerned about our performance … I’m not just concerned about the 30 percent that drop out,” Westerberg said. “I’m concerned about the high performers that aren’t performing at the level they can and should.”

For Candy Hyatt – a researcher for McREL, an organization that provides instructional support – reform comes down to finding a new way to implement changing practices, knowledge, technology and research in education. The decades-old system isn’t able to produce students who have information at their fingertips and can apply it, versus memorize it, and who can operate in a global community.

Hyatt likened the current school system to a hospital from the 1950s. In half a century, medical practices have modernized according to research, knowledge and improved technology. Shouldn’t we want modern education the way we expect modern health care? she asked.

“The world has changed, and high schools have remained largely the same since the 1950s,” said Christine Scanlan with the governor’s office. She added that the top jobs a decade from now haven’t been thought of yet, so schools must educate students for a “distinctly unknown future.”

David Greenberg, who founded what has become one of the most diverse schools in Denver in race, socio-economic status and achievement level – the Denver School of Science and Technology – says preparing students for today’s world is limited only by approach. He noted that some of the changes being made in Summit Schools are common across the nation, and are some of the techniques effecting success at his own school.

Panelists – most of whom didn’t confer prior to Tuesday’s discussion – mostly agreed that the single change with the largest impact is creating a culture of high expectations in the school and in the community.

It takes different shapes depending on the school’s community, strengths and weaknesses. It could mean putting students of different achievement levels in the same classroom; looking differently at what it means to be “intelligent”; asking students to apply knowledge in different and more meaningful ways than regurgitating information for a test; aligning curriculum so that primary and secondary classroom material prepares students for college – and more.

Lou Marchesano, a consultant with the International Baccalaureate Organization and former Summit Schools director of instruction, said that though IB wasn’t intended to be a method of reform, it has gone that route in many places. It’s often considered the ideal model to help students achieve success in today’s world.

“High expectation is tied to high execution,” Greenberg said. “If IB is done to the level it can be done, this will be considered the model district in the state.”

Panelists also noted that principal and teacher evaluations, establishing what good instruction looks like in each classroom and timely intervention for students are other tools to effect change.

Tradition gets in the way of change, Hyatt said, explaining that change takes two forms: intuitive and not-so-intuitive, or second-order, modifications that represent a dramatic transition from the way things were always done.

“Most of what happens in schools today … are the second-order changes. It results in people feeling very incompetent and threatened,” Hyatt said.

But dramatic change is what needs to happen as a school district seeks a new learning system while simultaneously updating an outdated learning environment, Marchesano said.

“We need to expand our discussion beyond what a teacher does in a classroom with 25 students,” he said.

Other roadblocks mentioned by panelists include labeling or limited students according to race, poverty level, zip code, ability level and resources available to help their progress.


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