By now, most parents and citizens have heard of the acronym NCLB. For those not familiar, it is the short title for the No Child Left Behind Federal Education Reform Act.
The NCLB, in a nutshell, mandates that 100 percent of the students in every classroom, in every school, in every system, in every state of the nation demonstrate proficiency on standardized tests in the areas of math, reading, language arts, science and social studies by the year 2014. Additionally, between now and 2014, schools will be expected to show steady progress each year towards the 100 percent goal.
Few would argue with the admirability of the Act; most, however, will question its practicality. Expecting annual improvement until the 100 percent plateau is reached is simply unrealistic, according to many practitioners. One thing is certain: 100 percent proficiency will not be easily attained! We have never reached it before and a mandate from the feds will not get it done. Schools will be challenged as never before to focus on individual student learning and to find ways to improve learning for students who have struggled and often failed due to a multitude of reasons.
So, how will the Columbia County schools reach the 100 percent plateau? I think it centers largely on two key components: quality teachers and a quality curriculum. First and foremost, we must make sure that every classroom is staffed with a knowledgeable, competent and caring teacher. We simply cannot afford average and mediocre teachers. The NCLB, in fact, requires that all teachers be highly qualified and if not, that parents be notified.
It will take the best teachers our profession can offer. We must attract and attain the brightest and most-qualified teachers available through competitive salaries, benefits and incentives. Obviously, schools and communities who can offer the best employment packages will maintain the edge. Our system must continually work to improve our position with competing systems. Our Board of Education must commit the resources to reach this end. Our business community must become involved to an even greater extent to offer incentives and privileges to educators.
Parents must become more involved with their childrens education and work in closer concert with teachers. The teaching role must be restored to a level of esteem second to none. That will require teachers to demonstrate the highest degree of professionalism and continuously improve their skills and abilities. Our system has the responsibility to provide opportunities for this continual professional growth. Successful learning for each child will require teachers to use a broad array of teaching techniques and strategies. To that end, we have identified and are funding a staff development program for all teachers that focuses on student learning and the teaching strategies that have proven effective with students of varying abilities and backgrounds.
The other significant piece of our plan centers around the curriculum. The curriculum represents that body of knowledge we want our students to know and understand and the essential skills they must possess for a successful and productive life. It is what we teach throughout the course of the year. Thus, it behooves us to make certain that the curriculum represents the essential content we want each child to learn.
For our state, the base curriculum is known as the Quality Core Curriculum (QCC) and schools are expected, as a minimum, to cover the learning objectives found in the QCC. A panel of curriculum experts has conducted a review and analysis of the QCC and has made recommendations for revision. The study characterized the QCC as being a mile wide and an inch deep. In short, the study concluded that the curriculum needed to be more focused on essential learnings, so that adequate time could be devoted to this content. A revised QCC should be completed soon.
In the meantime, our system has initiated a prioritization process of the QCC based on an internal study of the content we believe to be most important. As each curriculum is prioritized, teachers will be expected to address those priorities ahead of other less important content. This should enable our teachers to make the best use of the time they have available.
Additions to the curriculum must also be carefully studied for the value that is to be derived. Generally, any time something new is added, it must replace existing curriculum. There is not enough time otherwise. An example of this currently facing our school system involves the study of foreign language.
For the most part across our state, foreign language is a part of the high school curriculum and is required for the college preparatory diploma. Pilot programs in some elementary schools suggest that foreign language is more easily learned and better retained at these younger ages and should be taught at this level. But the question that remains is how does this fit into an already full instructional day?
We will be working this year with our schools and school communities to review recommendations from a Foreign Language Study Committee to incorporate foreign language instruction at every grade level, K-12. Parental opinions will be an important part of the review, and we will be soliciting broad input on this issue.
I look forward to the challenges of a new year and the ideal of leaving no child behind. I strongly believe that every child can learn and will learn when the conditions are made right and I have confidence in our teachers abilities to accomplish this task.
(Tommy Price is superintendent of Columbia County schools.)
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