April 20, 2006

WASC Process?

I kept this journal during our WASC accreditation week this year. I shared this blog entry with my Principal before publishing as a professional courtesy, and in an effort to self edit. She had some concerns that we discussed in a private meeting. Mostly she was interested in my motivation: was I trying to use this writing as a catalyst to take on a educational leadership position, or just expressing my thoughts and sharing my experience. The latter. I'm not bent on changing education in a single blog post. So if you are approaching your WASC week, take comfort in knowing that you're not the first, and you won't be the last to go through the "process." You will survive.

Day 1, Sunday 3:00 PM First Meeting.
The visiting team arrived today and toured the campus. The team consists of 8 administrators and teachers; some power players and some regular guys. The leadership team (I was co-chair of the Assessment Focus Group) sat down for a 75 minute meet/greet/Q&A session. The good news is that we did a great job on the self-study document so there weren't many questions that we hadn't already covered in some capacity. Everyone volunteered some response, but not me. For a change, I kept quiet. Not because I didn't want to contribute to the discussion, but because I wanted to listen and pay attention to the process. The visit is a 4-day process, I'll have many opportunities to share.

Day 2, Monday 6:45 AM Meeting.
Many follow up questions from Sunday afternoon. This morning the visiting team asked about the AP program; specifically what we are doing for the higher level kids. Redlands High School traditionally excels at helping higher level kids from a mostly middle to upper level income background succeed and go on to college. We offer a full schedule of H, E, and AP courses. But RHS is changing: we are now officially designated Title 1. The current challenge is to continue to send a large number of students on to college, but now from a population with greater than 40% low SES. The atmosphere among the teachers has always been more like one from a university: very professional, committed to teaching, and expert in the individual content areas. The good news is that this group of professionals is excited about the new challenges it's facing.

Day 2, Monday 2:00 PM Observation.
I planned a great lecture/presentation for today in anticipation of being observed. I was demonstrating the use of the digital video camera. I had my PowerPoint presentation going, the camera plugged into the LCD projector, and the kids were taking notes. It was perfect. (Not only that, but I bribed each one of my classes with doughnuts if they behaved well when observed.) Traditionally 6th period is a tough room so of course that's the one that got observed. I think my overall presentation was pretty impressive, and the kids were actually great, but as luck would have it, my observer came to watch during the worst possible part of my lecture. As she took notes, I sat in a chair in front of the live camera, with a bright light on ME, while the kids watched the cool built-in camera special effects on the projector screen. Of course, I was clowning around having a great time so I probably looked like an incompetent who spends his days "playing" with technology and "entertaining" the kids. Oh well.

Day 3, Tuesday 6:45 AM Meeting.
The visiting team leader shared some concerns after a full day of meetings and observations. First the visiting team saw a lack of what they consider "differentiated instruction" in classroom visits. This is tough since the week is topsy-turvy with multiple meetings, teachers pulled out of classrooms at irregular times, and visitors showing up in classrooms unannounced (see the previous paragraph). The second issue concerned formative assessment at more regular intervals. For example, testing for progress at 3 weeks, 6 weeks, and 9 weeks instead of just a the midterm or end of year. This too is problematic since teachers already assess their own students in their own classrooms nearly daily. The fact that this type of assessment is not formal, regular, or coordinated with other teachers of the same subject does not mean that the teachers are not using the assessments correctly, or making appropriate modifications. Hmmm.

Day 3, Tuesday 8:00 AM Focus Group Meeting (the BIG Show).
We were divided into two groups. Being a Co-Focus Group Leader I was separated from my partner, a math teacher. In my group I had a handful of "aces" and other teachers and staff members who made excellent contributions. I was the "lead man" so I got the first question concerning process directly at me. I stumbled through some incoherent response, and was pleasantly bailed out by some of my colleagues. The questioning continued in a non-confrontational atmosphere of respectful curiosity. There were two important points I wanted to make. First, when asked about structured meeting time, I responded that while the staff in general resented formal meetings when little was accomplished, they took advantage of multiple informal opportunities to collaborate. This staff genuinely enjoys each other's company. For example, the Science department barbecues every Friday at lunch. Sure they spend time visiting socially, but they also use that time to improve their teaching by sharing useful experiences. Two teachers walking down any hallway on campus will most likely be discussing something school related, usually positive, and almost always constructive. The second talking point on my list concerned our approach to the changing demographic. The good news is that this staff is not stuck in the "that's the way we've always taught it" mentality. However, there is a "that's the way we've always done it" approach to the traditions on campus, as there should be. These teachers come to school everyday ready to face the challenge of the kids that show up everyday, to fulfill their needs wherever the kids are at. That is how this high school is going to survive and continue to excel.

Day 4, Wednesday 8:30-10:30 AM
The worst part is being pulled out of class during random hours. The same random hours. This is the second day in a row that I will miss 2nd period. The problem with that beyond the chance of my class being observed without me in it, is how my absent throws off my teaching schedule. I try to keep my five similar classes heading in the same direction at the same pace. I can't do that when I miss the same period two days in a row.

For two hours this morning I sat through a word-for-word reading of the rewrite of the chapter 4 self-study. Why a visiting team who spends less than 20 hours on campus is qualified to rewrite our "self" study I do not know. Mostly they used what we wrote with minor adjustments. However there were a few areas I am concerned about.

The first one goes back to what I wrote previously about random observations during irregular days. They wrote that based on their observations in the classroom, "daily instruction appears to be predominately teacher-centered with few research-based instructional strategies..." This seems to imply that our teachers don't use other than teacher-centered instruction, and that is simply untrue. Unfair in my opinion to site such a finding based on very limited classroom observation time under strained circumstances. We provided evidence to the contrary in our original self-study, but that was not referenced in their rewrite. A few paragraphs later they list some of the ways technology is used in instruction, but leave out specific examples that could have been observed if a better schedule had been created for observation time. Perhaps I am being a bit whinny here, but I don't like the idea that our teachers might be misrepresented.

The second and much larger issue relates to the lack of Frequent Common Formative Assessments. Apparently "everybody" is doing it these days. Really? My problem here is that this is already happening by the teachers on this campus in their own unique (and I think unique is important here) way. Teachers are constantly assessing, and reteaching based on data collected from these assessments. The current method allows teachers to assess specifically to their own unique population of students. Apparently the research shows that teachers who create these (shall we call them FCFAs) do show improved results. My question is, where do they start from? From a 700+ API? Part of the reason we do as well as we do here is that teachers are allowed some freedom in their teaching. Freedoms that have already been restrained by standards, standardized testing, and NCLB. It feels like we're heading to a place where the "art" of teaching is being replaced by the "science " of teaching and (to make a leap) computers and software alone will be sufficient to teach kids. All we really need is labs of really fast PC's (Macs are for "artists") and a tech who can turn the power on while Read 180, NOVANET, and the Rosetta Stone take over. Am I nothing more than a future iTeacher or is it I, Teacher? Seriously, if my teaching schedule is going to be so regimented, my quizzes and chapter tests written and given to me by a "testing committee," my finals provided and scored by the district office, then where exactly is my input going to be used? Oh, that's right, to make sure that no child gets left behind. But what about leaving the teacher behind? Thank God I'm an elective teacher; we get ignored because we're Dodo birds (soon to be extinct). Someday I'll be back in the English classroom. When I am I hope that the job requirements includes more than simply unlocking the classroom door.

Day 4, Wednesday 2:30 PM The Final Meeting?
The staff collected for the visiting team's presentation of the WASC report. They shared the same basic information I had heard earlier in the day. We all applauded. We also applauded a woman, a retired teacher of over 40+ years, who did a wonderful job organizing the entire experience for our school; without her, we would have never made it. And so it ends.

One of the comments I heard, and I've been hearing since the current administration took over awhile back, is that ours is a "good" school working to become "great." I resent that. Maybe it's my ego. I think my school is not just good, or great, but unbelievably, off-the-charts, cosmically GREAT! Sure, we have areas we need to improve upon, and the "WASC Process" helped us identify and created an action plan to address those needs. My father used to tell me, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." My school is not "broke." I fear that in an effort to fix what isn't broken we may actually become "good," and then need to strive for "great." Or perhaps we can indeed put the WASC recommendations into action and move from "unbelievably, off-the-charts, cosmically GREAT" to "SUPREME GREATNESS!" Time will tell, or at least the midterm WASC report in three years.
My hostility towards the Frequent Common Formative Assessments is wearing off a little. While I still reject anything that forces teachers into unbreakable look-alike molds, I do see the benefit of sharing comparable data and collectively choosing the best test items. As for post-WASC cleanup, we're now faced with the challenge of figuring out how to bank time. I still feel that our WASC report misses some very important issues on our campus, but the areas it does address will be important to our continued success educating kids.

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