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Always Strive to Be a Better You

Panning for Gold in the
Era of Accountability


I'm a practitioner in the public schools. I hold the enviable post of elementary school principal. You may have noticed the 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, dubbed by the president as the No Child Left Behind Act (or NCLB), has refocused the attention and energy of millions of Americans on the effectiveness of our current school system. This is good.

You may have also noticed that thousands of American schools have awoken to find themselves fallen out of the bed of favor with the American public, landing sharply on the floor of tacks attached to NCLB consequences. This is not so good.

[content block] Does a spot on the "in need of improvement" list define a school? Are the cumulative experiences of the children within a school's walls rendered moot after the test scores arrive? Is every school on the "list" offering a sub-par education to the children on its roster? Is AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) the sole determining factor of effectiveness?

I understand the realities of the push for proficiency, the harsh consequences tied to education today, and the public perception accompanying school designations. I also understand that perception is reality, and many schools absorb an undeserved beating in the public eye because of a blurry snapshot of student performance.

So in order to shift the perception, and concurrently the reality, we need to provide a pretty image for the public to view. Nobody is going to do this for us; we need to grab the cameras ourselves, shoot a series of images, and share the shots that matter. I suggest the following prints for your schoolhouse darkroom:

Know your data. Test scores are nice, but dig beyond the obvious AYP profile. Scour grades, longitudinal growth charts, individual student reports, formative assessments, and any numerical representation hidden in the information tonnage we keep regarding student achievement. Pearls are usually hidden in oysters, I believe. Find them.

Know your program. Know it like your favorite hat knows the contours of your head. Speak intelligently about the changes your school has made, why they were important and well-timed innovations, what your expectations are for future success, and give ridiculously specific details about current progress. When you are at a barbeque, your neighbor's obnoxious buddy will ask you, "What's so great about your school?" Be prepared to fly your banner right then and there.

Know your students. Which students are progressing rapidly, and which are flailing? Which are proficient, which are not, and which are tantalizingly close to making the grade? Which children are happy, well-adjusted, critical thinkers capable of considerably influencing their surrounding mates? What are their names? What drives them to succeed, to work, to strive? When you take a look at what's really important, you'll see in their eyes the reflections of our true mission. You can share that.

Know the highlights. Keep a file in your office cabinet labeled "Stuff to write home about." Children say funny things, and they're always entertaining to record for recitals at the Cask 'n Flagon some Friday night, but what I'm suggesting here are the good moments that instill pride in all involved. Did your school receive a grant, have a bookmark-contest winner, obtain local recognition, score well on a facilities inspection report, receive a donation of books, or improve even 2 precent on a grade-level spelling inventory? Keep the highlights fresh in your mind.

Be proactive. Share the highlights, data, and positive tales at carefully crafted intervals. Coax, cajole, or guilt the correct people into the audience when you take the stage. Here are some introductory suggestions for the sharing modes:

  • Create a school brochure. What better way to concisely provide all the information you deem necessary in a handy format? Send it to the School Board, all residents of your school's neighborhood, your mother-in-law's pool guy, anyone who might like to raise their brows at a professional educational institution.
  • Host a carnival on the school grounds. An Open House would work, also, with games and fun activities for the whole family. Spread some positive thoughts about the school itself, even if academics aren't even on the menu. Welcome all comers, without attempting to fund-raise, and thank everyone for visiting the greatest school in the United States.
  • Invite local politicians Invite Board members, press reporters, local car dealers, and anyone else who might benefit from seeing first-hand the excellence within your school's walls. For a targeted invitation, prepare a short reader's theater, student performance, or a specific component of your school-wide program to center your focus. Then get the guests out of there, with a "wow" on their lips.

The key is simple: We want to pre-empt the negative views and comments about our schools. Before folks ask, "What's wrong with your school?" we shall offer the dissenting opinion, packaged handsomely in a series of 8x10 glossies, matted and framed for distribution.

Sure, it might be easier to lament the "unfunded mandate," bemoan the stress on testing rather than educating, and long for the days of yore before the assault of acronyms, but what would that solve? Our voices would be lost in the cacophony. Why not strip away the veneer and expose the silver lining that enshrouds even the darkest clouds?

Always strive to be a better you,

Article by Pete Hall
Copyright© Education World 2006