Todd Jones teaches history, government, economics and international relations at West Linn High School. His 13 years of teaching social studies and language arts in middle and high schools follows ten years of work in state politics and public relations, including four years with Secretary of State Phil Keisling, two years with State Treasurer Randall Edwards, and stints with Portland communications firms Northwest Strategies and Metropolitan Group. Currently he serves on advisory boards for Chalkboard Project, the West Linn Parks and Recreation Board, and Oregon Model United Nations. He has a bachelor’s degree in history from Willamette University and a master’s degree in teaching from Lewis and Clark College.
A few months back I met with a Sherwood High School teacher who told me that she and her colleagues were unable to get students to apply for a scholarship for college-bound students interested in becoming teachers. A week later I relayed this story to a group of educators and a school board member exclaimed, “Oh, that happened to us. We offered a scholarship for teachers-to-be and no one applied!”
I was taken aback. I enjoy teaching so much, I guess I had assumed up until then that others would see what I see and find the job appealing. Granted, it is not an easy job–I put in relatively long hours (On average, 55 per week), and the work can be taxing, mentally, emotionally, even physically. (more…)
I teach students to set SMART goals—goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely; goals that challenge us yet can be reached; goals for which we can gauge success in relatively short periods of time. Our hope, of course, is that having SMART goals will spur us to take specific actions to achieve the goals.
When the legislature adopted achievement compacts for school districts about a year ago, my hope was that districts would set SMART goals and, more importantly, change practices with eyes toward meeting the goals.
So I was pleased when, at the start of our school year, my principal shared with our staff that our school was taking a number of steps to boost our graduation rate, including providing summer support to incoming freshmen who struggled academically in middle school, appointing an administrator to focus on freshmen attainment of credits, and strengthening relationships between freshmen and upper-class mentors. He suggested at the time that this partly was due to graduation rates being a primary factor in achievement compacts, and the state’s and the district’s focus on all students earning diplomas. (more…)
Dr. Rudy Crew, Oregon’s new Chief Education Officer, spoke at the Grantmakers Conference in Eugene on October 17th. About sixty representatives of Oregon foundations heard him suggest where Oregon should focus its energies and resources to help students grow and achieve—making sure all students can read by third grade, promoting STEAM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics), better training and supporting teachers, and supporting stronger parent and community connections with schools.
As I listened it occurred to me that education officials and advocates know how to advance in all four of these areas. There are proven programs for teaching reading and raising literacy. There are effective models for engaging students in meaningful STEAM instruction and activities. There are traditional and non-traditional programs that are better equipping teachers to be successful in the short and long-term. There are exemplars in building relationships between parents and schools. We have a pretty good idea how to do all this; perhaps not with unquestionable certainty, but with enough confidence to move forward. We lack just one resource. (more…)
I recently toured a nonprofit in Medford called Kids Unlimited. KU identifies traditionally disadvantaged students at an early age and provides them with extra-curricular activities, academic support and mentorship in hope that they will stay in school and earn diplomas. Of the first 18 students who entered the KU program ten years ago, 12 of them graduated from high school, and KU’s success has only grown since then. It took me two minutes with the KU founder, Tom Cole, to recognize that he is a gem of a leader – visionary, committed, charismatic, and no-nonsense. I asked him what he thinks is the key to KU’s success. He gave a one word response – relationships.
I’ve been thinking about that word a lot lately. I’ve shared this story with others. When I got to “relationships” in the story one colleague responded, “You can’t teach that.”
In my work under the new Oregon Education Investment Board (OEIB) over the past three months, I have been exposed to a lot of data, a lot of statistics. Some have surprised me, and some not at all. Some have given me hope, and some have discouraged me. But one statistic has shocked me:
Of the 45,000 children born in Oregon each year, an estimated 40 percent carry significant risk factors, ranging from family poverty and instability to parents engaged in substance abuse or criminal behavior.
I had lunch recently with an American friend working in Singapore. I explained to him how I conduct an international trade simulation with my economics students, and in the simulation, Singapore is one of the economic powerhouses. I asked him about the Singapore government, and whether it helps or hinders economic growth in that city-state.
He replied that government is one of Singapore’s strengths. How do they do it, I asked, when in much of the world government is viewed, at worst, as helplessly corrupt, and at best, inept.
It’s simple, he said. The Singapore government pulls the best and brightest from their high schools, sends them all over the world for top-notch higher education, then obligates them to serve in the government in exchange for the education, albeit with handsome salaries and benefits. The education, he explained, is to keep candidates beholden to the state, while the salaries are to keep them content and above reproach. The result, he suggested, is one of the most efficient and effective governments in the world.
Interesting model. Why not apply it to education?
Story #1: I teach International Relations at West Linn High, a course juniors and seniors can take to fulfill a social studies requirement. Part way through the spring semester, I was discouraged to realize that over half my 100 IR students were missing assignments. Considering we’d averaged only one homework assignment per week, and a couple of the assignments were quite easy, I was troubled. It is my goal only to assign homework I believe will benefit students, and when they don’t complete homework it hampers their ability to succeed.
So with complete parental and administrative support, I sprang a surprise on students: If you do not complete every assignment, you will not pass this class. Even if you’re earning a passing grade, if you have even one missing assignment, I will enter “incomplete” in the gradebook and you will not receive a credit. Some were shocked, realizing that no credit could mean not graduating.
I was nervous about the new policy. I wondered whether all students would pull through, and if they didn’t, if I’d be willing to be the one obstacle that stood between them and graduation. I wondered whether at crunch time a parent would challenge the policy.
As an educator I’ve heard a lot of talk over the years about change and improving outcomes for our students, but it feels different this year. Real change may actually be in the air, and there are new coalitions of stakeholders in the field of education that seem to be making it real. Here’s what I am seeing:
- Almost five years ago the Chalkboard Project formed an advisory council of teachers, school administrators, district superintendents, college deans, and school board members. This council supports Chalkboard in its work promoting innovations making a difference in Oregon schools—innovations like the CLASS project, teacher mentoring, and professional development coordination.
- Three years ago Chalkboard convened a broad cross-section of educators at the headquarters of Oregon Public Broadcasting for a summit on education in Oregon. This initial gathering spawned the Oregon Coalition for Quality Teaching and Learning, a body equally as diverse as Chalkboard’s advisory council. The coalition is currently chaired by Randy Hitz and is a state member of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. The Oregon coalition was the driving force behind a two-year legislative task force that established recommendations to the 2011 legislature to recruit, train, retain and develop teachers in Oregon.
- For over a year a team of district superintendents has been meeting to consider new ways to deliver education services and boost student achievement.
- The 2011 legislature is considering the creation of an Oregon Education Investment Board to better coordinate the delivery of education in Oregon from pre-school to graduate school.
Will these new coalitions and new efforts help Oregon achieve its ultimate goal, more student learning and achievement? That remains to be seen. But we have to hope that we’ll strengthen education in Oregon when educators at all levels are working with each other instead of independent of each other.
Originally published in the Oregonian, as “How about some straight talk about fiscal crisis?”
This past election I received 146 political mailings. They contained hundreds of promises, including vows to support businesses and seniors, improve healthcare and education, and reduce taxes and regulations. Beautiful promises all. But not one of the promises was to cut public programs or raise taxes. Troubling, since state and national fiscal crises suggest we must do both.
My economics students understand this. This fall we watched “I.O.U.S.A.,” which revealed that federal debt swelled to $12.7 trillion in 2009. Bad news, considering we have not budgeted for the additional $46 trillion Social Security and Medicare will cost over the coming decades.
My government students understand as well. A state senator visited with us recently and said Oregon must cut over $3 billion from a $15 billion budget over the next two years, about 20%.
Our national leaders understand, too, but sadly, they’re unwilling to admit it. This month our president and Congress turned their backs on the recommendations of the deficit reduction commission, then declared victory as they extended expiring tax cuts and heaped another $850 billion onto our mountain of national debt.
Why won’t they confront reality? Is it because we aren’t willing to? Consider Oregon. About 93% of our discretionary budget is spent on education, human services and public safety, so cutting 20% means cutting vital services. And in education, where about 85% of spending goes to wages and benefits, that means cutting people. But public servants are quick to react against this, understandably so. (more…)
Traditionally, grades have been interpreted as C means average, B means above average, A means excelling, D means below average, and F means failing. Yet no student of mine in fourteen years of teaching believes this. My students view B as average, A as above average, C as below average and D/F as failing.
Furthermore, I’m unsure whether most students know what it means to excel. Most are accustomed to earning As for simply following instructions. It’s not uncommon for a student to ask me why an essay was scored a B, when they listed all the requested information. I’ll reply yes, you listed the information, but you didn’t explain the information, support the information, demonstrate that you truly understand the information. In other words, you met the minimum criteria, but you didn’t surpass them. Often I receive a blank stare in response.
It seems that our students are receiving increasingly better grades, and not necessarily working harder or smarter to earn them. A 2005 study by the organization that administers the ACT test concluded, after analyzing the GPAs and ACT test scores of 800,000 students per year over 13 years, that grades had inflated over 12% over that time period, meaning a student that scored a 20 on the ACT in 2003 had a 12% higher GPA than a student that scored a 20 on the ACT in 1991.
If grade inflation exists, if we instructors are assigning students ever higher grades, then we may be doing them a disservice. They may be learning that top marks are not hard to come by, and that’s certainly not going to motivate them to become the next great innovators and problem solvers our world needs.
I’m not suggesting teachers simply need to grade students harder. In truth, I wish we didn’t have to “grade” students at all. I wish, instead, that we could simply provide students and their families meaningful qualitative information and data to monitor and promote learning and growth. But as long as we do have grades — as long as colleges and communities look to grades, regrettably, as the sole barometers of student achievement — then we owe it to students to hold them accountable to solid standards and evaluate their work accordingly, and resist pressure from students, parents and administrations to grant favorable grades. That means when a student and/or parent asks for extra credit assignments at the end of a semester for the sole purpose of boosting scores, we should reply no, and let scores reflect actual performance.