Guest column: Achieving the results we want for our kids
The Glenwood Springs Post Independent recently reported on the release of college readiness data from the Colorado Department of Higher Education, noting that the “Roaring Fork School District fared slightly better than the state average across the board” (“School district level report looks at college readiness,” Oct. 16). Is better than average good enough or is it possible for us to radically improve outcomes for our students?
Today in Colorado, according to the Colorado Department of Education and Colorado Department of Higher Education statistics, we have a system that is designed to get about three-quarters of our students through high school. Slightly more than half of them enroll in post-secondary education. Of those, about a third need remediation before they can take college-level courses. Putting all those numbers together, only about one in four students who enter high school are likely to graduate from high school with the knowledge and skills to succeed in a college-level course without remediation. Unfortunately, those are the results our education system is designed to get.
Yet, most parents I talk to think that a K-12 education — culminating in a high school diploma — is at least a ticket to next-level learning. In fact, they have even higher aspirations than that. Over the past year, Roaring Fork schools engaged 1,400 parents, teachers and students in an ongoing dialogue about what aspirations they have and by what means we should achieve them. They told us they want their students to meet high academic standards, develop character and life skills and be critical thinkers, collaborators and contributors to their communities. Drawing from the great ideas of three communities, the school district assembled some guiding documents: a new mission, a set of commitments to our children and our schools and a comprehensive strategic plan to get results for all our students.
This plan, which you can read on the district website, is a pretty complex document. It is intended to manage the work of 500 teachers, 300 staff members and a dozen schools over the next several years. It rests on five strategic pillars: academic excellence, culture of character, talent development, community engagement and strategic use of resources. But it aims to accomplish three simple results: all of our students will graduate with the knowledge, skills and character to prepare them for future learning and success; our students will have the opportunity to complete authentic projects that challenge them to find evidence and develop strong academic and character skills; and students will receive the support they need to meet benchmarks from preschool through high school.
In order to achieve these results, we are going to have to do a whole lot more, and we are going to have to do a whole lot less. We are going to have to shift how we operate from implementing top-down mandates and programs to working in continuous improvement cycles: establishing short-term goals, taking action, gathering and analyzing data, learning what worked and starting the cycle over again. We need to continue to unleash the creativity of our entire workforce and engage them in problem solving at all levels of the organization. We are going to have to figure out how to administer fewer, more meaningful assessments, but be a lot more methodical about how we use them. We are going to have to stop promising so much and to start delivering on the simple promises that matter most.
We have just raised the rigor to ensure that all students graduate with the knowledge and skills to be ready for learning and work after high school by increasing the number of core academic courses required for graduation. We have reduced the electives required and provided more flexibility and support to ensure that schools can prioritize core requirements for their students. At parents’ request, we have identified five character skills, our Habits of a Scholar common to all schools, which become the focus of our character education program: executive skills, perseverance, enthusiasm, compassion and teamwork. This year’s ninth-graders will complete capstone projects as a requirement for graduation. At the same time, as we prioritize these strategic commitments to academic excellence and character development, we are going to have to adopt the mindset that we must reduce in other areas.
We are already seeing bright spots that point to early gains and lessons from which we can learn. Last year, the district employed improvement cycles in teaching reading in grades K-3. Our reading scores went up markedly and, for the first time, eclipsed the state’s. At the other end of the K-12 pipeline, our high schools put an increased emphasis on college readiness skills, and their ACT scores, an important proxy for college readiness, went up as well. Knowing that the development of character is a key to academic success, Basalt and Carbondale middle schools teach character as a means to success; those two schools far outperformed the state in academic growth. These bright spots point the way to developing character and raising achievement in all of our schools.
It’s important to note that these beacons are intentional and not accidental, and that by adhering to a continuous improvement process and studying what works, we can manage to achieve systematically different results in all schools. We can also learn from bright spots outside of our district; whereas Roaring Fork schools are performing similarly to most schools around the state, there are schools where all of their students meet grade-level expectations and 100 percent of their graduates go on to college.
It takes discipline and humility for us to learn continuously and we also have to be willing to challenge some of the theories and beliefs that provide coherence to the current system in Colorado where only one in four high school freshmen will be ready to succeed in college. I believe we can get the results our community wants for our children if we are willing to be honest about the facts, keep the focus and double down on what matters most for our kids.
Rob Stein is the chief academic officer for the Roaring Fork School District.
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