Achieving the results we want for our kids
The Glenwood Post Independent recently reported on the release of college readiness data in Colorado, noting that “Roaring Fork School District fared slightly better than the state average across the board.” Is better than average good enough, or is it possible for us to radically improve outcomes for our students?
“Every system is perfectly designed to achieve exactly the results it gets,” Don Berwick said. Today in Colorado, the education system is designed to get about three-quarters of our students through high school. Slightly more than half of them enroll in college. Of those, about a third need remediation before they can take college-level courses. Putting those numbers together, only about one in four ninth-graders are likely to graduate high school with the knowledge and skills to succeed in a college-level course. Unfortunately, those are the results our education system is designed to get.
Yet most parents think that a K-12 education, culminating in a high school diploma, is at least a ticket to next-level learning. In fact, they have even higher aspirations. Over the past year, Roaring Fork schools engaged 1,400 parents, teachers and students in an ongoing dialogue about what aspirations they have for their students and schools. They told us they want high academic standards, character and life skills, critical thinkers, collaborators and contributors to their communities. Drawing from the great ideas of three communities, we assembled some guiding documents: a new mission, a set of commitments to our community and a comprehensive strategic plan.
This plan, which you can read on our website, http://www.rfsd.k12.co.us/, is a pretty complex document; it is intended to manage the work of 500 teachers, 300 staff members and a dozen schools over the next several years. But it aims to accomplish three simple results: all of our students will graduate with the knowledge, skills and character to prepare them for future learning and success; our students will have the opportunity to complete authentic projects that challenge them to develop strong academic and character skills; and students will receive the support they need to be at grade level from preschool through high school.
In order to achieve these results, we are going to have to do a whole lot more, and we are going to have to do a whole lot less. We are going to have to shift how we operate from implementing top-down mandates and programs to working in continuous improvement cycles: establishing short-term goals, taking action, gathering and analyzing data, learning what worked and starting the cycle over again. We need to continue to unleash the creativity of our entire workforce and engage them in problem solving at all levels of the organization. We are going to have to figure out how to administer fewer, more meaningful assessments and be more methodical in how we use them. We are going to have to stop promising so much and to start delivering on the simple promises that matter most.
We have just raised expectations in core academic subjects to ensure that students graduate ready for learning and work after high school. We have reduced the number of requirements to ensure that schools have flexibility to meet the needs of each student. At parents’ request, we have identified five character skills, our Habits of a Scholar common to all schools, which have become the focus of our character education program. This year’s ninth-graders will complete capstone projects as a requirement for graduation. At the same time as we prioritize these strategic commitments to academic excellence and character development, we are going to have to adopt the mindset that we must reduce in other areas.
We are already seeing bright spots that point to early gains and lessons from which we can learn. Last year our third-grade reading scores went up markedly and, for the first time, eclipsed the state’s. Our high schools put an increased emphasis on college readiness skills, and their ACT scores went up as well. Knowing that the development of character is a key to academic success, Basalt and Carbondale middle schools teach character as a means to success; those two schools far outperformed the state in academic growth. These bright spots point the way to developing character and raising achievement in all of our schools.
It’s important to note that these beacons are intentional and not accidental, and that by adhering to a continuous improvement process and studying what works, we can achieve systematically different results in all schools. We can also learn from bright spots outside of our district by studying schools where all of their students meet grade-level expectations and 100 percent of their graduates go on to college.
It takes discipline and humility for us to learn continuously, and we also have to be willing to challenge some of the theories and beliefs that provide coherence to a current system in Colorado where only one in four high school freshmen will be ready to succeed in college. I believe we can get the results our community wants for our children, if we are willing to be honest about the facts, keep the focus and double down on what matters most for our kids.
Rob Stein is the chief academic officer for the Roaring Fork School District.
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