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Posted: July 25, 2010 12:30 a.m.

Letter from the Superintendent

As we begin this 2010-11 school year, over 2,600 employees and almost 20,000 students will come through the doors of one of our 24 schools in Newton County. When they do, most students:

• Do not care about what we know until they know we care

• Do not care about a list of things until we list why they matter

• Do not learn that which is not shared with others.

With all due respect declares one of my favorite school reformers, "It’s about teaching, stupid!" Likewise, researcher Robert Marzano confirms that two teachers working with the same socioeconomic population can achieve starkly different results on the same test: in one class, 27 percent of students will pass; in another, 72 percent — a life-changing difference.

As the new superintendent, in this first message conveyed in The Covington News, I could talk budget, buildings, buses, and the like. But, throughout my career as a school leader, I have focused, focused, focused on teaching-for-learning-for-all. Why? Because that’s the essential mission of our public schools. As I do not like to make things up when it comes to professing "best practices" at the classroom, school, or district level, my future bi-monthly columns in CN will often focus on the bottom line: effective teaching and learning—for students and for those who serve them in our schools and classrooms.

What’s the core argument in Schmoker’s Results Now? First, he argues, instruction itself has the largest influence on achievement. Second, too much instruction, despite our best efforts, is ineffective but could improve significantly and swiftly through ordinary and accessible means. What are some of the key points in this observation by this former English teacher and school administrator, the likes of which I’ve seen over the past 35 years:

• A "buffer" keeps all of us from seeing how much better our schools could be.

Non-interference, privacy, and harmony are precisely what prevent us from getting to the tough work of school improvement. As I see it, this culture is the best friend the status quo could ever ask for.

• The buffer is both cause and effect of a tradition of isolating educators from each other and from information that is essential to professional practice. If we leave virtually every decision up to individual teachers who work alone, then inferior practices will dominate in most of our schools.

• The buffer and teacher isolation work to prevent leaders from having much influence on the quality of instruction. If the privacy of teaching prevails, strengthened by a lack of collaboration, then leaders cannot provide ongoing improvement of instruction.

• School leaders must arrange for teams of teachers to meet regularly to create—to craft and refine—lessons and teaching units until they have the maximum impact on student learning. Writes Schmoker: "While seemingly boring and pedestrian to those who love glitzy initiatives, we have to see how this seemingly mundane concern with creating, testing, and refining lessons and units, in teams, is the real — guaranteed — path to better instruction."

• The buffer can hide one of our greatest opportunities: That what we teach often varies markedly from what we think—or from any kind of common, high quality instruction. What gets taught in our classrooms is a very big deal! In one example, provided by Robert Marzano, one teacher taught 28 times as much science as a teacher down the hall, and no one in the school knew it until researchers discovered it.

What does all of this have to do with life in NCSS? First, our data from 2010 tell us two things: we enjoyed improvements in 33 of 36 instances on state assessments just announced. We also trailed the state of Georgia in 35 of 36 instances. As we evaluate, or make judgments about where we are as we start this school year, we must first acknowledge that we aren’t where we want to be. We’re better, yes. It’s also relative. In the short run, we look to make continued progress as with this spring. In the long run, we want to be much better than an "average" district in the state of Georgia. I believe our kids and our community are counting on us to:

• Foster positive relationships with students such that they know we care, offer work that matters to their lives and learning, and make it "cool in our schools" to be a learner.

• Focus on high quality instruction inclusive of "high probability" classroom strategies and building background knowledge for all students—those who struggle and those who excel.

• Break through the "buffer" of isolation, non-interference, privacy, and harmony in favor of monitoring instruction, collaborating with others, and a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo given our current results.

• Empower teams of teachers to examine data, create and test lessons for effectiveness, compare notes, learn from each other and others, and move down the real path of school improvement.

It’s a new school year. And as our parental involvement theme suggests: Be there! I’m excited and honored to be here!

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