Friday, January 21, 2005
Superintendents ponder the future and how to prepare
How do we prepare today's students for a world in which knowledge doubles every five years? Should elementary students be learning Chinese in preparation for the global economy? How do schools continue to provide challenging programs while in cost-cutting mode? Three local superintendents, Brenda Finn of the Concord and Concord-Carlisle Regional School Districts, Marie Doyle of the Carlisle Public School, and William Callahan of the Minuteman Regional School District, considered these and other questions at a League of Women Voters forum on January 12 at the Carlisle School.
Each superintendent started with a short autobiography, revealing some interesting commonalities. For example, all were raised in big families — Finn the fifth of eight, Doyle the third of eight, and Callahan the only boy in a family with six girls. All were inspired by family members who overcame adversity. Finn's immigrant mother was the first in her family to graduate from high school, and her father was the first in his to graduate from college. Doyle remembered her parents being active in the civil rights movement and an immigrant Irish grandfather who worked as a laborer at the Braeburn Country Club, where Doyle recently returned for a party in her honor. Callahan's mother earned her bachelor's degree at age 67, providing an example to her children, all seven of whom are now educators.
Finn looks to budget, other challenges
As did each of the following presenters, Finn pointed to her school's mission statement, noting the emphasis on "intellectual and personal development" with the goal of producing "productive citizens of a rapidly changing world." She said the qualities leaders need to bring to the task of education are "ethical principles and good common sense" including "courage, endurance, moral authority, and the humility to change course when warranted." One of the prime tasks is to teach students to "deal in connections" between people and ideas while maintaining high standards.
"There are tremendous challenges in the year ahead," said Finn, including the loss of state funds. While Concord-Carlisle has avoided the massive layoffs other schools have endured, staff has been reduced at a time when state and federal mandates are adding to the education burden. A teacher shortage has hampered hiring in languages, math, science, and special education. Enrollment increases over the past seven years have added 300 students at the high school, while the curriculum has not increased significantly.
In addition, the facility is in need of capital improvements at a time when state funding for building projects is being curtailed. The towns are also subjecting schools to more financial scrutiny as revenue growth slows. But Finn pointed to "strong connections with our town colleagues" and "open lines of communication" as important sources of strength, and concluded that with the help of students, staff, parents, and the community, "We'll weather the chill and emerge with a new commitment."
She also pointed to recent successes at the high school, including course additions in Chinese, statistics, and world literature, and a China student exchange. Other successes include "MCAS scores that are among the very best," a successful athletics program, high SAT scores of 589 verbal and 632 math, and 92% of students taking AP exams scoring a "3" or more. A new fiber optic network and phone service, and computers have been added, and a committee has been formed to make recommendations for a capital plan for the high school which may include renovations, new construction, or a mix of the two.
Doyle sees "life-long learning"
"I knew this was a place I could call home," said Doyle of first reading the Carlisle School's mission statement, which emphasizes "a world class school" to "develop a society of life-long learners." Doyle joined the school in September, and calls her first six months "fantastic."
"Education is at a critical point," says Doyle. Schools have had to adjust as society moved from a farming to a factory-based economy. She observes, "Schools are still adjusting," and educators must ask, "What does the future look like?"
In the current economy, according to Doyle, every five years the average worker changes jobs at least once and the knowledge base doubles. Workers must be flexible, able to work in teams, and effectively use technology. Math, science, and engineering graduates are in short supply, and students must be inspired to pursue theses subjects before grade nine. A global economy means a greater need for knowledge of languages and cultures, and there will be a particular demand for those who understand Chinese.
Schools must ask themselves "What's in the curriculum and why?" For example, if two languages are offered, should Chinese be one? Chinese, Farsi, English, and Spanish are, in order, the most spoken languages. Also, languages should be offered in the early grades; research shows that by age thirteen, many students have "lost the ear." Doyle points with pride to the recently-completed program to bring Chinese teachers to the Carlisle School, and hopes to be able to accept an invitation for Carlisle teachers to visit China.
Another question to consider is "What should classes look like?" Schools must generate thinkers and problem-solvers capable of taking on new knowledge and adjusting to a rapidly-changing world. Memorization is out. Doyle is a strong proponent of systems thinking, a method long used at the Carlisle School, which encourages students to link cause and effect through experimentation and computer modeling. She characterizes her leadership style as "consensus," and believes that all children can learn, that children should be held to high standards, and that they learn best when education is related to real life experiences.
The structure of the school day must be examined. How many hours should students spend in school? It is increasingly difficult to cover the curriculum in the time allotted. Interdisciplinary instruction is another area to investigate, and Doyle says she was intrigued to learn Chinese students spend most of their time on projects, with teachers available but not directing. Block scheduling, in which teachers specialize in a subject, is a form Doyle would like to investigate moving down to the elementary level.
In an atmosphere of budget cuts and economic slowdown, bringing on new programs will be difficult. Doyle is concerned with the level of teacher stress, noting that Carlisle teachers are "dedicated and work extremely long hours." Time constraints and the loss of staff development dollars increases stress levels. The Carlisle School currently has many new teachers who particularly need time with colleagues and professional investment. In addition, the school faces space issues, and "crowding is not conducive to a learning environment."
That said, Doyle pointed to the school's successes and strengths, which include an enthusiastic staff, "happy, engaged students," an atmosphere of openness and dialog, and support from parents who are themselves life-long learners with "the highest educational level in Massachusetts." The Carlisle School is "intriguing, fascinating, and a great place to work."
Teaching a different style student
"Learning never ever ever ends," says Callahan, continuing a common theme throughout the evening. Whereas technical high schools were once seen as "terminal education" (no further education needed) the current economy requires continued learning throughout life. As an example, in automobile technology knowledge triples every three years, according to Callahan, so mechanics must be willing and able to "go to school for the rest of their lives." The new technical high school philosophy has changed to something more like "to position the student for the next learning environment or next work environment."
A Jesuit school student who learned Greek, Latin, and French in high school, Callahan was attracted to vocational education as "an entirely different approach, a different type of teacher, and a different type of student." After teaching for 35 years in Melrose, Callahan took a one-year position as principal of Minuteman Regional High School in 1976. Twenty-seven years later, in 2003, he moved 33 feet down the hall and became superintendent.
Callahan characterizes his leadership style by quoting Patriots coach Bill Belichick, "My job is to position players to succeed." He notes that "knowledge of learning styles has grown tremendously" in recent years, and Minuteman teavhers "identify learning styles and teach to those styles." The school has had particular success with "hands-on" learners, whose needs are often not served in a typical classroom. As a result , 92-93% pass the MCAS the first time. But Callahan notes that "multiple intelligences require multiple assessment techniques" and looks forward to the day when technical high schools have state exams geared to specific majors.
To keep current, Minuteman depends heavily on industry partners in each of its 24 majors. Callahan notes that 62 % of students continue with work or higher education in their major. Addition of majors in biotechnology, pre-engineering, and others reflect the growing needs of industry. But Callahan says the traditional trades are often unjustly neglected as career choices, and notes he spoke to a recent graduate who accepted a job as auto mechanic paying $48,000. The building trades are another area in need of new blood, and Minuteman has contributed four students to the This Old House project in Carlisle who are being showcased on the program to encourage younger people to enter the trades. "There is a need and place for young people."
Parents have questions and suggestions
Parent and Carlisle School Committee member Christy Barbee believes Minuteman has an image problem, and asked, "How could we do a better job with kids to encourage them to explore this rich opportunity?" Callahan pointed to the use of alumni and student spokespeople, and the publicity from This Old House. He said new programs have been designed to allow high school students to transfer into Minuteman, and to allow Lexington students to take courses there. He is open to other opportunities for cooperation, including helping set up middle school programs in technical areas. "Hands-on programs are often the first cut" when budgets get tight.
Parent Maureen Tarca took him up on that theme, wondering whether a cooperative program could be designed to allow Concord-Carlisle High School students to take courses at Minuteman. Finn responded, "It's our responsibility to provide courses at the high school," and pointed to travel time as a possible barrier, while leaving open the possibility of further cooperation. Callahan wondered if a semester program would deal with the travel issue, and observed, "It's up to us to come up with alternatives." He noted Minuteman is looking at grants from the National Science Foundation which provide links with universities as "one way to be creative about funding new programs."
Concord parent Sarah Pacelle wondered if using high school students at the elementary and middle schools would be another way to address curricular shortages. Doyle responded, "We love them, but they're busy." She noted the Carlisle School does its best to foster those links, particularly through community service.
A question about legislated programs for gifted students led Finn to define those students as "beyond proficiency," and to note, "We need teaching that meets those students' needs. Their needs have not necessarily been met." Callahan fears additional state mandates without the money to support them, and Finn agreed, "Teachers are overworked. Every year they are asked to do more and more and more. Nothing is ever taken away so it becomes a layering effect." Doyle believes teacher development is needed to help deal with differences in the classroom, and she would rather see money spent on keeping class size to 18 students and raising teacher salaries.
A question about cutting out early release Tuesdays (in Concord every Tuesday, in Carlisle once a month) elicited a reaction the questioner did not expect. Both Doyle and Finn expressed support for more teacher development time. Doyle noted that dealing with different types of students requires professional development and collaboration between teachers. Finn said that 50% of Concord teachers have five or fewer years with the school system, and, "They need the opportunity to talk about what they do in the classroom. It's how they get better. Professional development is an investment."
Superintendents' wish lists
A question about each superintendent's "Dream List" elicited the following wishes:
• World languages in elementary school
• Chinese language and culture
• Middle School classes in engineering and technology
• Equipment for teaching science and engineering, such as CAD stations
• A media center from which students could produce news and entertainment
• An exchange program with China
• Languages in elementary school
• Middle school electives
• Deeper and broader high school electives, particularly in technology, math, art, music, and drama
• Improve thin electives
• Add arts and music
• Add AP courses
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