Friday, November 12, 1999
CSC addresses timely challenges
Time may be money for some people, but more money won't necessarily buy more time for the Carlisle Public Schools. Time has become an increasingly precious commodity for teachers and students.
The Massachusetts State Curriculum Frameworks, which have been released and revised in the last few years, describe what students should be learning as they progress through the state's public schools. The frameworks are among the most demanding in the nation. In some cases, meeting all the standards in the prescribed time-frame means adding requirements to an already crowded curriculum. At the same time, state-mandated tests, designed to measure how well the frameworks are being implemented, take time away from classroom instruction.
The state frameworks aren't the only source of time pressure on schools. New and emerging technologies promise not only new opportunities for learning, they also require new skills of users. Should the schools be teaching search strategies and keyboarding as critical skills for tomorrow's citizens?
Speaking of citizenship, improving student behavior, raising the level of civility, has become a focus in Carlisle and across the country. (The Louisiana state legislature passed a law requiring students to address teachers as sir and ma'am). How do we squeeze this important effort into the curriculum?
Concerns about student health and fitness, highlighted by recent studies of America's trend toward obesity, adds yet another potential obligation for schools. How do Carlisle's schools and the school committee think about managing time? Here are some ideas.
Integrate the curriculum
One strategy, particularly prevalent in Carlisle, involves finding meaningful ways to weave different parts of the curriculum together. Some folks call it an integrated curriculum; other call it thematic teaching. In Carlisle, it's a natural outgrowth of the schools' focus on systems thinking, which actively looks for the interconnectedness of things.
In life, content disciplines are rarely discretely separated. As adults, for instance, we don't worry about spelling and grammar only when writing a letter to our old English teacher. So, too, in Carlisle schools are language skills reinforced across the curriculum. The other disciplines are intertwined as well. A unit on the Ice Age, for example, encompasses reading, writing, social studies, science and math. Art and music are also integrated into units when possible.
This integration of content areas allows some efficiency of instruction. Multiple skills can be introduced and reinforced within a single unit. The integration of specialists with the classroom teachers makes the effort possible in the elementary school, and block scheduling supports coordination among the different content teachers in the middle school. Carlisle's integrated curriculum isn't just about efficient instruction. It's about good education. The increasingly complex world isn't neatly segmented. Students need to know how to understand the whole and pull it apart to make it meaningful.
Make smart choices
Even Carlisle's integrated curriculum can't cover everything demanded by the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) tests, other external demands, and internal priorities. The schools have to make choices about what to teach when. How does the Carlisle School system decide?
The school committee has supported and encouraged the schools not to sacrifice good practices for higher interim test scores. We focus on what works and meets Carlisle system goals, which are developed with state frameworks in mind. The only state test that has any real consequences is the one that students take in tenth grade. Starting with the class of 2003, students must pass this test in order to graduate. The state tests leading up to this high-stakes exam measure how well the curriculum has met requirements along the way. The staff in Carlisle pores over the results of these exams to understand what might be missing from the curriculum. If they find something missing from the third-grade curriculum that is measured on a fourth grade test, they won't necessarily try to squeeze it in (often at the expense of something else), especially if it is wonderfully covered in fifth grade.
There's no point in throwing the baby out with the bath water. The frameworks give the schools guidelines, and the tests help illuminate how the school is meeting those guidelines. The data help inform decision-making, but they don't dictate it. Carlisle School has high expectations for its students that go beyond those articulated by the state. Teachers expect their students to be good thinkers and good citizens. Those qualities should lead the students to do well on state tests (and, so far, they have) and those are the qualities that will guide decision-making.
Rethink the school day and year
As information continues to explode in an increasingly complex world, how can students learn all that they need to know in a schedule that was constructed in a much simpler time? As the schools move forward, it's not clear that the current schedule can support all the demands. Something may have to give. Should the school year and the school day get longer? Is year-round schooling an option?
Clearly, there are numerous institutions and traditions that mitigate against a change in schedule. Vacation homes, summer camps, family gatherings, and summer jobs are all built around a predictable school schedule. How can it change? How can it not?
We face some difficult decisions ahead, ones that will involve the entire Carlisle community. In fact, changes in schedule can extend well outside the community. Teachers in Carlisle often live in other towns. What happens if Carlisle's schedule differs from that of their own children? What happens to camps and time-shares that are built around a known, statewide schedule?
Many people in Carlisle, including the members of the school committee, worry about how soon the schools will run out of physical space. It's a critical and urgent question. Unfortunately, we may soon find ourselves addressing how we'll run out of time as well. The school committee invites the participation of everyone in the Carlisle community to tackle these issues. Carlisle is blessed with wonderful schools reflected in the success of its students in so many areas. Maintaining that success in the face of numerous growth pressures will be a challenge for all.
David Dockterman is the chair of the Carlisle School Committee.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito