Site Meter Josh's Blog: September 2007

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Ramp Up Math

I visited two middle schools today and had the opportunity to see a few Ramp Up classes. Ramp Up is a program from America's Choice that we have begun to implement in all of our middle schools this year. It is designed to give children extra help that will prepare them for Algebra. As we know, access to Algebra is the new civil right of the 21st Century - if students don't master it, their chances of success in college decreases significantly.

I spoke to a few teachers and students about the program and I want to share a little of what I heard and saw. All of the students were fully engaged in learning Algebraic concepts - some were working alone, others in pairs or groups. Teachers were circulating through the class, checking for understanding. I asked students if they liked this way of learning math and whether it was easy or hard. Some said easy, some said hard, but all of them said that they liked learning this way. One student gave me a lengthy explanation of how he approached a problem based on the distributive property. I was struck by his clear grasp of the purpose of each of his steps - he knew the steps to follow and understood why he had to take those steps. Another student told me that he liked math better this year because "now I'm getting the concepts."

The teachers gave me very honest feedback, which I appreciated. They didn't say that everything was great or that the program could never work. One teacher told me that the mini-lesson at the beginning of the day that was supposed to take 5 minutes actually took 20. Another told me that he's been a "traditional" math teacher for more than 20 years and that he's struggling, but that since the kids are "getting it," it's worth it. I also saw the school math coach and the district teacher on special assignment for math at the school, visiting classrooms to understand how we're doing with the program.

It's always very difficult to implement a new instructional approach and Ramp Up is no different. Given the hard work and committment I saw from our teachers today, and the engagement and enthusiasm of our students, I'm more convinced than ever that we're on the right path.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

State Legislation, NCLB, CMT and CAPT

In it's last session, State legislators passed a series of education accountability bills that are aligned with NCLB and have significant implications for Stamford. I have been talking to other superintendents around the state, as well as State Department of Education officials (including the commissioner) about it, in order to understand what it means for us. The bottom line is that if Math and Reading scores don't go up significantly soon, we will have to take comprehensive reform efforts at schools that have persistent low performance. These measures may include instituting after school programs, reconstituting schools and/or implementing new curriculum. Some districts in Connecticut have been designated in Corrective Action, which means that they must follow some prescriptive steps that the State has laid out. Our recent CMT and CAPT scores should have put us in corrective action, however, the State didn't analyze the data quickly enough. Essentially, we got a "bye" year.

My strategy going forward this year is : 1)continue to work with the State Department of Education so that we fully understand the implications of the legislation, 2) begin exploring comprhensive and aggressive measures that can be taken at schools that have had persistently low performance over a number of years, and, 3) fully understanding the successful practices in Stamford and beyond that can be replicated. My belief is that if we develop our own solution that meets the intent of the legislation, the State is less likely to impose their solution on us.

This work will require everyone - teachers, parents, administrators and community - to fully understand the implications of the legislation and to come together to problem-solve. There are some things that I will have to do, some that the Board will have to do, and other things that can be done collaboratively.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Math and Science in the 21st Century

We had a good turnout at AITE on Tuesday night for the Community Forum on Math and Science in the 21st Century. If you weren't able to attend and want to see what we talked about, my presentation is on the website at:
I thought the best part of the forum was the demonstrations by our teachers. As I always like to say, I would put Stamford teachers up against any in the country, and Tuesday night proved why. They showed us actual activities and lessons that our children are now doing in elementary math and science, middle school math and high school science. I think I spent the most time in HS science, watching Ms. Dixon-Moore and Dr. Lisy show us DNA testing and a mosquito under a digital microscope. They also talked about how much they like the restored 80 minute double-lab period in Biology, which helps them engage students in deeper understanding of Biology concepts and more hands-on activities. Our kids are lucky to have these teachers and I wish I had taken Biology from them.

As always, I would have liked more families to attend the forum. However, schools will be organizing more opportunitites during the year for families to learn about what we're doing in the classroom in math and science. I also hope that the community understands that we're able to do this work because of the generosity of the GE Foundation. If it weren't for the $15.3 million dollars we're receiving from them as part of the College Bound District Program, we wouldn't be able to make this kind of investment in our children. We're entering into the 2nd year of the 5 year project and we have to start thinking about what we're going to do when the money goes away.

The next community forum is on October 9th at the Yerwood Center. We'll be discussing the implications of the recent Supreme Court decision regarding race-based student assignment. I hope to see you there.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Some Cool Things I saw Today

I visited two schools today, Rogers and Stark. I saw some great things, but felt compelled to note two of them. At Rogers, in the staff meeting/IB room, there are two pieces of chart paper on the wall regarding Staff Development (among many other things): "Essential Agreements for Staff Development" and "What we Expect from Each Other." What struck me was that the teachers had spent time to articulate exactly what kind of learning they want to be engaged in and what kind of learners they want to be. If you get a chance, talk to someone from Rogers about it.

I also saw some great examples of math instruction this morning. In one K class at Rogers I saw students excited about figuring out how many different ways they could express the number 4 with their fingers. In a 1st grade class at Stark I saw students learning the number line by guessing what number that their classmate was thinking of while two other students "walked the line." In another Stark class the students were creating pictographs of how they got to school - bus, car or walking. What was great about each class was the enthusiasm of the teachers.

Community Forum

Next week on 9/11 we're kicking off our monthly community forums. This one will be held at AITE from 7 to 9. The topic is Math and Science instruction in the 21st Century. The format will be different than previous forums; we're going to have demonstration lessons in math and science so that parents, teachers, community members and administrators can get a more in-depth look at what's happening in our classrooms.

I hope to see you there.

First Days of School

I brought my daughter Eliza to Kindergarten on Tuesday. She attends PS 321 in Brooklyn, a school of 1200 which happens to be the same one my wife attended. She's in a full inclusion class, with 6 students with IEP's and 12 without. My wife and I crowded into the classroom along with the other parents. The teachers were at the door, the room was very organized and ready for learning, and there was a sheet of activities for students to complete to get the students acclimated. I was reminded by this visit of how much time teachers everywhere put in prior to the first day of school.

As of today I've visited about 16 of our schools. I've popped into elementary, middle and high school classrooms. Not surprisingly, most elemntary classes look very similar to my daughter's. In my visits to middle schools I've seen teachers helping 6th grade students open their lockers. I've also seen a lot of review of rules at the middle and high schools. This is, of course, an absolutely necessary part of starting the year - students need to know the structure and the consequences for their behavior. The middle and high school students generally had that well known look of adolescent malaise as they heard the teachers' expectations.

I was also reminded of the maxim that was told to me in the teachers' lounge when I first started teaching - "Don't smile until Christmas." I never understood this saying. As a student I always liked the teachers who smiled and showed their personalities and I worked harder when the teacher mixed interest in me with high expectations. So I disregarded this suggestion and rarely had a discipline problem (I have no idea if the two are connected).

So I'm left with a question - how different are the needs of our elementary, middle and high school students when they come back to school? By the same token, are our needs as adults when we start a new job that different from our needs as kindergartners? We want to enter into a warm environment where we feel supported and we need to know where the bathroom is. I wonder if we explicitly show our middle and high school students our warmth and care for them in the same way we do our elementary students. In my opinion, all our students K-12 need to see it.