Saturday, June 9, 2012

Educational Priorities and the Need to Survey Students

I was reading an article recently about the best high schools in the country and noticed that City Honors School at Fosdick-Masten Park in Buffalo, NY was listed among the top of this elite group. On their website I took particular note of their philosophy of education.
They cite as their four Core Values:
~ Honesty
~ Kindness
~ Respect
~ Responsibility

In addition, their stated Beliefs are:
  • Students need to learn to work cooperatively with others and live compassionately in a pluralistic society.
  • Students require a differentiated curriculum that….
    Is aligned 5 – 12
    Models best practice
    Is commensurate with their academic and intellectual needs
    Includes multiple modalities of student assessment
  • We believe support from home and school will ensure student success.
  • Students should be encouraged to be producers of new knowledge, not just consumers of information.
  • Parental support and community partnership are integral to our school organization.
  • Continuous assessment of student progress is essential to ensure that we are meeting needs.
  • We believe the training and support of school personnel is critical to the success of the school.
  • Community service is a vital part of a student’s learning.
  • We believe that our community of learning must cultivate its cultural diversity.
  • We believe that our students need direction, a caring environment, feedback, “expert” teachers, and high achievement. To that end, we believe that our students should be able to strongly agree with the following statements:
    1. I know what is expected of me in my classes.
    2. In my classes, I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work correctly.
    3. In one or more of my classes I have the opportunity to do what I do best on a regular basis.
    4. There is at least one teacher, counselor, or other adult at school who regularly encourages my achievement (development).
    5. About every week (regularly) I receive recognition or praise for doing good work from at least one of my teachers.
    6. My teachers regularly inform me how I am doing in my classes.
    7. I believe my teachers are experts in what they teach.
    8. As a result of going to this school, I believe I am learning and growing in important ways.
    9. This school is meeting my expectations.
        During my many years as a BOE member, I encouraged superintendents, many times over, to get student input so that Board members could see what the consumers of education - the students - think about their experiences at the PCSD. Several years ago, the HS principal presented the BOE with a partial survey of students. When she was asked why most of the students were not surveyed, she said that many of the teachers didn't take their classes to the library to fill out the surveys because they were busy. Well, the high school has a 20-minute homeroom period where such surveys should be conducted so there should be no excuses.  I believe some administrators were themselves reluctant to gather student input in a systematic and thorough manner. Why? Loss of control of the message. Any good news from the surveys would (and should) be touted but any bad news would (and should) inevitably lead to hard questions from the Board and to necessary action to be taken by administrators to explore and address any areas of weakness. 
        The nine statements listed above, along with the three noted below, could be used in a survey of students. Students could be asked  to rate those ideas on a scale from "Strongly Disagree" to "Strongly Agree." The brevity of the task would probably ensure that students would complete it and not tune out. It would also make it easy for administrators to summarize the results.(Actually, the student council might want to handle the surveying of students. It would be a good authentic project for them.) Additionally, since some of the nine statements refer to teachers - not a specific teacher - administrators could stop fretting the student surveys would violate teacher evaluation requirements. Finally, sharing the results with the BOE (and, thus, the public), employees, and students would enable all to see school through the lens of the students. Student input could then be used to improve the quality of the educational experience for students. 
        A NY Times article on the topic of surveying students is entitled, "What Works in the Classroom? Ask the Students"
    This article presents some very simple observations: Classrooms where a majority of students said they agreed with the statement, "Our class stays busy and doesn't waste time," tended to be led by teachers with high value-added scores. The same was true for teachers whose students agreed with the statements, "In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes," and "My teacher has several good ways to explain each topic that we cover in class." As a nation, we've wasted what students know about their own classroom experiences instead of using that knowledge to inform school reform efforts."  (These three statements could be added to the nine noted above to create a short, 12-statement survey for PCS students.)
        There are easy ways to gather important important information from students in grades 5-12. Will we ever have a Board where the majority directs the superintendent to gather such information on an annual basis? Will we ever have a superintendent who is eager to use student knowledge to inform school reform efforts?

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