Aspen school board candidates talk academics (part 4 in a series)
October 11, 2017
Editor's note: The election for three open seats on the Board of Education for the Aspen School District is Nov. 7, while ballots will be mailed out Oct. 16.
The Aspen Times this week is publishing a five-part questionnaire with answers from the five candidates — incumbents Margeaux Johansson, Susan Marolt and Dwayne Romero, and challengers Jonathan Nickell and Susan Zimet.
What areas of the Aspen School District's curriculum need the most improvement and attention?
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The board looks at all academic areas annually. It's part of the coherent governance model, which is what we use to govern. By annually reviewing reports and by speaking with staff, we are able to have a clearer understanding of how our students are progressing. Four years ago we heard from the community and were able to see through our monitoring that our students were not leaving us with the foreign-language skills required to go forward. As a board, we spent many hours researching and rewriting our policy in order to better reflect what we wanted for our students. We then directed the superintendent to act upon our policy changes. That set the wheels in motion. Staff were given time and resources to find a better curriculum, better ways of monitoring success, and ultimately changing the delivery of instruction. It has proven to be very successful.
That same time and focused attention is now being placed on mathematics. The board collectively agreed last year that our students were not making reasonable progress in math and so we gave the same directive. We initiated additional work sessions with district math faculty during the school year. We discussed with them kindergarten through 12th grade math alignment, the incorporation of common core standards within each school's curriculum, and problem-solving for methods to achieve higher math performance district wide. The sessions with the math staff were both informative and rewarding, and the dedication of our math professionals was truly impressive. We will be reviewing math this October and my expectation is that we will see improved results for our students.
Based on what I believe are previous successes in working with world language and mathematics, the board set as a priority at its annual retreat in August to begin a similar process with the English Language Arts faculty this year. I have found this work to be both valuable and rewarding, and look forward to continued collaborative work and communication with teachers across all grade levels, in order to improve the education of all our students.
We are constantly monitoring and assessing each area of content in our district to improve and enhance the curriculum. Math has been a priority for the board for several years. The board is in the process of a comprehensive, district-wide math study to assess where we are and where we want to be. We determine goals for our math program as a team and work together to meet those goals. It involves all math faculty, administrators, and board members and is a process, identified as a board priority that we look forward to continuing and expanding to other curriculum areas. Our programs and curriculum flourish in an atmosphere of collaborative teamwork. Nurturing that atmosphere continues to be an important goal for me. Math scores have improved the past two years; we are making progress. We must continue monitoring our math curriculum to ensure this positive trend continues.
Current IB assessments show improvement and progress on most all IB exams. State assessments of our special education population put us near the top of the state in this area. We are reaching these students and serving them well. We must make sure we are finding ways to motivate and engage all students. Project-based learning, mentorships and internships are some ways we can continue to engage students. Also, expanding the IB profile to lower grades can prepare all students to be confident and able to undertake advanced and IB courses later. By striving to engage all students, our district will continue solidly preparing our youth for their futures.
Using the decline in performance in achievement scores based on percentile rank as a guide, there is a need for improvement across the board in math, science and English language arts, with the elementary school being the highest priority, followed by the middle school and finally the high school. On average, we have dropped from about 90th percentile to 76th percentile in the different subjects. I also think the curriculum needs to be benchmarked against 21st century skills to make sure we are incorporating best practices while continuing to increase the social and emotional component of learning.
The Board of Education (BOE) has been doing a comprehensive study of the math program, including curriculum, and is also considering broadening their work to other areas. While I applaud the BOE for taking action, I disagree with the approach.
We have a professional administration and staff who are responsible for making sure the math program and curriculum are in order and aligned with standards. I believe that by getting directly involved, the BOE is overstepping their bounds and entering a difficult area where they have no real expertise. There is no evidence that they were able to foresee, or prevent, the issues that brought about the necessity for intervention by the BOE, and I find it difficult to believe they have the solution. I believe we need to have our own in-house professionals correct the situation, with outside experts as needed. The BOE should assign this task to the superintendent and make sure it is performed in a collaborative matter, but not get involved in his responsibilities. While well-intentioned, I feel the BOE's actions will actually slow things down and produce a poorer outcome for our schools.
Evidence would suggest both our numeracy and literacy areas of instruction probably need the most attention. In our most recent School District monitoring and assessments on the math curriculum, we ultimately rejected the administration's view that reasonable progress was made over the last academic year. While this may sound dire, it is not. For me, what it really says is that over the rated period we have seen less-than-exemplary academic performance in several grade levels, both in overall proficiency and growth within the subject material. Also, from a longer view (over the last few years), there appears to be sufficient evidence for the board to "pump the brakes" and suggest a deeper analysis and review of our math curriculum.
We, together with administration and teacher-group leaders, commenced a series of work sessions last academic year to structurally review the overall delivery model in math, and are working on several initiatives (some underway now) that should yield significant improvements. This is a work in progress, so it may be awhile before we are to fully realize these improvements.
Likewise, the same approach is being considered for our language arts arena; parts of the data and testing results we've seen suggest there has been a bit of irregular performance and growth declines at select grade levels. Again, we are examining this data in real time, and may consider conducting a similar "deep dive" analysis, in concert with our teachers, the District Accountability Committee, student inputs, and the administration.
Therein lies the key takeaway for me — that is, we need to conduct these reviews and analyses from a broad coalition perspective — having all stakeholders at the table to develop the best strategies for improvement and overall performance.
We can do a lot better with our curriculum. While it is not the board's job to determine course offerings, we know from past and present district students that math, foreign language, music and chemistry classes are in need of an upgrade. Our new computer science program needs to be nourished and expanded. We may need more vocational and technical programs, such as the popular automotive lab we previously offered, for students not bound for four-year colleges.
Best practices would recommend a curricular audit for our district, to be performed by an independent professional curriculum auditor. It is unclear to me when, if ever, our district has had such an audit. Along with increasing teacher pay, an audit would be one of the first items I would push for if elected. We've got to become more aggressive about upgrading our curriculum to meet the needs of all our kids.
Technology is rapidly advancing and that trend is going to continue. We have to make sure that we provide our students with the tools they need to succeed in the high-tech environment. We should be encouraging young girls to develop an interest in STEM; by getting them into the pipeline early, we can help address gender diversity issues that appear to be prevalent in places like Silicon Valley. We have to be the change we want to see in society.