This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

August 9, 2007 - reform needed not just for schools

I've been reading lately about the latest round of CSAP scores -- the state mandated tests that rank schools by student test performance. The consensus seems to be that scores aren't moving up fast enough.

It reminded me of a session I attended last June at the American Library Association conference, held in Washington, D.C. A former school librarian and now consultant, Dr. Michael Schmoker, is part of the school reform movement -- from inside the profession. He called his talk, "The Opportunity: From 'Brutal Facts' to the Best Schools We've Ever Had."

Schmoker's title comes from a book I admire very much, "Good to Great," by Jim Collins. Collins, a business researcher, argues that organizations only do well when they first confront the brutal facts of their environment and performance.

According to Schmoker, the brutal fact about schools is that in much of the day, in most of the schools in America, there just isn't much instruction going on.

That seems incredible. But, by way of example, he deconstructed what must surely be a common classroom occurrence: the teacher asks a question and calls on the person who raises his or her hand to answer.

But why? asks Schmoker. The student with the hand up is the one person in the room least in need of instruction. There are many other students whose hands are down, whose eyes are down, who are utterly disengaged. There are, in fact more of these students in the class than there are their handwaving counterparts.

Then Schmoker described something else: a case where, in a terribly underperforming school, suddenly one teacher makes a difference. His class math scores are zooming when everyone else's are static. So the principal walks into the classroom to see how come.

Is it because the teacher is some kind of genius, a star? No. He is doing something the other teachers are not: following some relatively straightforward instructional steps.

I'm paraphrasing, but the idea is, roughly, this: the teacher presents the information in a couple of different ways. Then he or she breaks the big group into smaller groups to try to apply the new idea, to practice. Then the students have to demonstrate the concept somehow. And we're not talking about just the folks who raise their hands, but the ones deliberately avoiding eye contact. Then the teacher repeats the process, clarifying any confusion, errors, or lack of understanding.

When these steps take place, so does learning. And every teacher already knows this.

So why doesn't it happen?

Let me be absolutely blunt: the reason is not unique to schools. It happens in every organization, every business large and small, in churches and secular institutions. Even in libraries.

Over and over, organizations train their people to follow a procedure or practice. When staff or students don't follow that practice anyhow, the answer isn't "more training." It isn't waiting till the test scores or stock prices coming out and then flagellating or firing everybody.

The best way to make sure that best practices are being followed is for supervisors to wander around and see. Then talk about what they see. Then remind everybody that we already know what works. We just have to do it.

The culture of accountability isn't about surveys or national tests. It's about the daily battle to stay focused on the task at hand. It's about not being sucked into all the other distractions, time-wasters, and artful dodges that so often fill our days. It's about being honest about the times when we don't hit the mark, and redoubling our efforts.

Guess what? That's hard. And it's why the vast majority of our private and public sector organizations are, by definition, "average."

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