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Race to Nowhere


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Thank you District 64 and District 207 community members for attending our showing of Race to Nowhere. On behalf of our community, I would like to thank District 64 ELF and the District 207 Education Foundation, without whom our showing of Race to Nowhere would not have been possible.
 
Race to Nowhere raises some excellent questions about rearing and educating our children. As I am sure you remember, we asked those in attendance to comment and ask questions in reaction to seeing the film. Below is our attempt to respond to those comments and questions. Hopefully, we have given sufficient and thoughtful responses that will lay the groundwork for further discussion and decision making in the future.

Many asked that we show the film to all teachers, coaches, and other school personnel. Currently, this movie is shown on a proprietary basis, meaning the educational foundations of Districts 64 and 207 paid for the rights to show the film, allowing us only one official public showing. However, it is my understanding it will be available on DVD soon, which will allow us to make this film available to a greater number of our students and staff.
 
I would also like to thank our panelist for being part of the process and for being a great source of information to those in attendance on August 29. They were:
 
Mary Angioletti
 
Ms. Angioletti has been a social worker at Maine South High School for the past 19 years. Prior to Maine South she was the social worker at Lincoln Middle School in Park Ridge. She received her Masters in Social Work from Loyola University of Chicago and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.
 
Dr. Philip Bender
 
Dr. Bender is in his second year as superintendent at District 64, having served in the same capacity for five previous years in Indiana. He has been a teacher, principal and counselor at the elementary and middle school levels and holds EdS and PhD degrees in Education.
 
Carin Smith
 
Mrs. Smith is the Sr. Associate Director of Admissions at Lawrence University with 25+ years of college admissions experience. She is also the president of the Illinois Association for College Admissions Counseling and a mother of two college-going children.
 
Dr. Ken Wallace
 
Dr. Ken Wallace is in his third year as the Superintendent of Maine Township High School District 207. He has risen through the ranks of education starting his career as an English teacher and wrestling coach. He speaks to audiences throughout the Midwest on developmental differences between boys and girls that impact cognitive achievement as well as strategies to differentiate instruction for all learners.
 
Stephanie Maksymiu
 
Stephanie Maksymiu began her counseling career over 20 years ago as a college counselor at Loyola Academy upon finishing her Masters degree in Human Services and Counseling at DePaul University. She is in her 18th year at Maine South High School, her 8th year as our Career Counselor.
Now on to your questions!
 
Homework, tests and assignments:
 
There seems to be too much homework. Why do we give assignments and tests over weekends and breaks? What is the school’s position on homework?
 
Homework takes a pretty good drubbing in the film. The distinction that needs to be made is the one between "good" homework and "bad" homework. Homework well used is important to the educational process. The best use of homework I have witnessed was a former science teacher I worked with. He gave homework and never checked it. He gave time at the beginning of the class for questions about the homework, but never checked it or gave credit for it. The homework he gave enhanced the work in the classroom and sometimes set up the next day’s lesson. Some students needed the extra practice and others did not – and that was ok. Student performance on formative and summative assessments was the litmus test. He could then talk with the student about how his or her homework (or his or her lack of doing homework) was helping them progress through the coursework.
 
The power of this approach is that it creates ownership over the coursework by placing the onus on the student to take an active, independent role in their education. It also keeps student grades authentic to what the student actually knows and can do, and truly helps to prepare students for college and life. No one checked my homework in college, but I had to do it to be successful. No one checks my homework now, but I do it to be successful in my job.
 
One of the things we are exploring with our staff and students is the idea of creating a system to help teachers be more aware what their students are involved in so we can avoid homework overload. For example, many teachers default to making Friday "test" day. Additionally, projects are often due just before leaving on a break or immediately upon return from breaks, resulting in students having multiple tests or projects due all on one day. We are exploring having "departmental testing days" which could be a good first step to relieving some of the pressure and to providing necessary breaks for our students.
 
How can our kids balance sports and homework? There seems to be too many hours on the athletic fields. There needs to be a sports version of this.
 
It is well known that sports are a big part of Maine South’s identity. Many argue that sports are an essential element to meeting the affective and social needs of students. What I find interesting is that most countries we are compared to academically do not have formalized sports as part of their program offerings for students. Nevertheless, sports are part of students’ lives at Maine South and in America.
 
If homework is meaningful and we make some systematic changes to testing, it really comes down to time management, a skill which we do not teach students and is something we may need to start doing. Additionally, we should put first-things first; meaning we need to be sensitive to students academic needs before athletic needs and structure our practices and expectations to reflect that. For example, our athletic handbook asks coaches to limit practices to two-hours.
 
I also encourage parents to have serious conversations with their children about what they hope to get out of participating in sports. Are our kids participating in sports for the right reasons? There are numerous club and community teams that have less rigorous requirements and time commitments. Both of my nephews were cut from their high school teams after their sophomore years – they just were not talented enough to go on to the next level. Yes, they were disappointed at first, but they moved on. They both played on local club teams and enjoyed the experience. Having this resiliency is important because throughout their lives our children will hear the word "no" many times. If they are not prepared to deal with that productively they may never realize success in life.
 
Why give zeros for homework?
 
Good point. If the homework is meaningful and the teacher requires it, the student should still have to do it. If I am asked for a report and I miss the deadline, my boss still wants the report, he doesn’t just give me a zero or dock my pay. We are currently exploring the use of our Wednesday morning late starts as a way require students who miss homework to report to school at regular time and complete their homework. If the homework is important, it is important to require our students complete it. Maine West is ahead of us on this one!
 
Testing and Adequate Yearly Progress:
 
Where does testing and Adequate Yearly Progress fit into this mix? What if my child does not test well?
 
We are required by the state to test every eleventh grader as a provision of the No Child Left Behind Act. Therefore, Maine Township has adopted the EPAS system of testing which our students go through each of their first three years in high school. Freshmen complete the EXPLORE test, sophomores complete the PLAN test, and juniors complete the District 207 ACT test – the S comes from the PSAE – State test, which our students take in the spring of their junior year.
 
We use these tests to help us evaluate each student's academic progress in English, mathematics, reading, and science. They also provide practice opportunities to help students build test-taking skills essential to success on the Prairie State Achievement Examination. The Prairie State Achievement Examination (PSAE) is used to determine our compliance with standards mandated by No Child Left Behind and consists of an institutional ACT (meaning it is the actual ACT) and a test called the WorkKeys (a state developed and mandated test). The state uses a formula that combines a student’s ACT score (day one’s test) and a student’s WorkKeys score (day two’s test) into a final score that either meets or does not meet the state standard.
 
Having said that, this amounts to quite a bit of "test-prep," especially when there is no external incentive for the student to meet standards on these tests, at least the WorkKeys, portion of the test. Quite frankly, most of our students are just worried about the ACT portion of the test as it has real meaning for them. There is, however, negative impact on the school as low scores are reported in the newspapers and are often the only indicators in the public’s mind of our quality and success as a school. In fact, when the results come out this October, the state testing results for the Class of 2012 will reveal only 8 high schools in Illinois will NOT be on the academic warning list in at least one category. This means that 751 high schools in the state are now considered to be "failing" on some level.

So is this stressful for our students? Yes, I believe it is. Because so many of our students are college bound, they take our practice tests seriously. Success or failure on these tests colors how they believe they will do on the actual ACT when they take it – that is the real "high-stakes" test in the minds of our students. It is this kind of stress that often creates students who are traditionally successful in the classroom, but do not test-well on standardized tests.
 
If your child does not take standardized tests well, the first thing you can do as a parent is let your child’s counselor know so they can inform the staff. We can work together to accurately assess what your child knows and can do. Take heart – if your child does not test well on standardized tests, it does not mean their educational future is at stake. I spoke personally with several members of our senior class who did not meet standards on their state test (PSAE) and every one of them were going on to do what they wanted to do anyway. Some were headed to 4 year colleges, some to community colleges, and some to work. They were all still pursuing their goals, so do not let poor standardized test scores get in the way of your child’s future plans.
 
Common Core State Standards:
 
Where do Common Core State Standards fit in as those requirements are more challenging? Will this not add more stress? When will critical thinking start happening?
 
An insider-parent must have asked this question as the Common Core State Standards are not common knowledge! The state has adopted the Common Core State Standards, as have 44 other states, which will significantly change our state tests. I really like the Common Core State Standards (you can find out more about them at www.corestandards.org). I like them because the standard is not all about content, rather it is about skill acquisition which is what is really required for long-term success in school and life. In a world where factual information is accessible at almost any time, fact memorization is not as essential as it was in the past. In a world where computers can perform any job that does not require synthesizing information in a meaningful way, being able to do something with information is vastly more important than simply knowing information. The Common Core seeks to develop skills, not simply impart knowledge. This is at the heart of critical thinking and now we are going to be asked to formally assess it. This is truly where the rubber meets the road.
 
If we "do" school correctly by asking teachers to really distill from the vast curriculums we currently teach that which we believe is really important for students to be able to know and do, I think we will actually relieve stress rather than create more. We will go deeper into the curriculum rather than just keep trying to cover more. Our teachers are working every Wednesday (collaboration) to do just that. They are also starting to address the issue of what we need to do when students are not acquiring the skills we feel they need. It is NOT OK for students NOT to learn that which we believe every student should know and be able to do. If we succeed in this, the tests will take care of themselves and hopefully relieve stress rather than create it.
 
G.P.A.:
 
The weighted G.P.A. penalizes students and encourages them not to take courses for fun and exploration - what is the school doing about this?
 
We will have weighted courses for the foreseeable future – why? Currently, colleges and universities use G.P.A. as one of the most important admissions factors as it is a good indicator of a student’s performance over time. Students have multiple teachers over multiple courses and G.P.A. helps establish a performance rating. Theoretically, a student achieving a 4.0 G.PA. without taking "accelerated" or "honors" courses has not taken as rigorous a curriculum as a student achieves a 4.0 G.P.A. and has taken "accelerated" or "honors" courses. Weighting actually helps the student who gets a B in an advanced placement course as it does not penalize him or her for taking a rigorous course.
 
The real problem is student interpretation of G.P.A. If the student translates G.P.A. as class rank and not just a reflection of their academic performance, a student might choose to play the "course selection game." Class rank, in my opinion, should be eliminated as it fosters unhealthy competition, sacrifices exploration for the sake of the "race," and creates a totally arbitrary standard as class rank is specific to the students at Maine South. Additionally, research can find no instances of how not having class rank hurts a student’s chances for admission to college, while it can point directly to how having a class ranking system can hurt a student’s chances for college acceptance.
 
However, I could envision a future where we went to standards-based grading. This means students would be "graded" by their ability to achieve a performance standard rather than a grade. For example, a performance standard might be:
 
Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts,
using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Introduce precise, knowledgeable claim(s), establish the significance of the claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that logically sequences claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.
  • Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly and thoroughly, supplying the most relevant evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level, concerns, values, and possible biases.
  • Use words, phrases, and clauses as well as varied syntax to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships between claim(s) and reasons, between reasons and evidence, and between claim(s) and counterclaims.
  • Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing.
Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the argument presented.
 
A student could either do this, or they could not, and be rated as so. At a minimum, we want all students to be able to do this; this would be a "meets standard." We would then have an "exceeds standard" or a "below standard" rating to identify what a student is actually able to do. This would be very radical! The question then becomes, "How do we move universities towards accepting this kind of grading?"
 
The above example, by the way, is an eleventh grade Common Core State Standard in English.
 
Stress:
 
How will we address the stress?
 
It is undeniable that our kids feel stress from many different sources. Stress is also in the eye of the beholder, so to speak, as some students can handle more stress than others – and that is O.K. the ability to handle stress does not make one person better than another, it just makes them different. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the book Flow, and many others on the psychology of performance, would say that the way we manage stress and operate at our maximum level of efficiency, is to reach "flow." "Flow" is a state of being reached when we are challenged to perform at a level just slightly above our current ability level. This insures learning is taking place and the right amount of motivation (here motivation equals progress) is being tapped to keep us moving forward through whatever it is we are working on.
 
If something is not hard enough, we are not gaining or honing a skill because we are operating at static level we can easily achieve. If something is too far above our ability level, we give up because the scaffolding is not there to help us achieve it. It is this discord that causes students academic stress.
 
So, how can we help students manage stress in the classroom? One way is to differentiate our instruction so that students are constantly challenged appropriately. We want students to continually move forward without feeling overwhelming stress which can lead to the desire to give up. The idea is to help students be in a constant state of "flow." A cohort of teachers was trained this summer in differentiated instruction (varying the classroom instruction and learning goals so that students are continually challenged by the work of the class). We will continue to train teachers in this educational strategy to help insure all of our students are reaching their potential.
 
Outside of the classroom, managing stress is about setting priorities and limits. We can do it all – but we cannot do it all well. Parents need to have tough conversations with their students about not over-extending themselves, about getting off of the treadmill, and about what they value as a family. If taking one more A.P. class, or joining one more sport or club is going to threaten what the family values, then the student should not take on those things. This means families need to be very deliberate in having these conversations with their children. No family wants to inadvertently send the message that what it values is being as busy as possible simply because they did not take time to talk about what matters most.
 
Does downtime translate into "trouble time?
 
An audience member asked an important question, "Does downtime translate into "trouble time?" The answer is – it depends! If your child is over-scheduled, then the answer is probably no, as they will use downtime to sleep or mindlessly unwind. This is physiological by the way, not teenage laziness! If your child does not have enough to do, or if your child is over-stressed, the answer could be yes. Making this determination is not easy. You want your child accounted for when you are not around and you want your child to engage in activities, school-related or otherwise, that they enjoy and can last a lifetime. Teenagers are wired for risk. I highly recommend a current National Geographic article, Beautiful Brains (October 2011) that gives insight into what scientists are discovering about the teenage brain. Knowing this and planning accordingly is important.
 
For example, when you child goes off to college, they will be in class roughly 8 hours a week.
 
Currently, they are in class roughly 40 hours a week. Your sons and daughters will not be studying 32 hours a week! They will be faced with many unproductive things to do with downtime in college and it is best to help them figure out now how to use it productively.

If your child struggles with testing, how can the school help?

Why do we encourage kids to take AP courses at the expense of band and other courses?
 
Do we encourage students to take A.P. courses? Yes we do as they are the best preparation for college-level work. However, we do not encourage counselors and teachers to promote them over other courses students enjoy. If this is happening please let me know. Very often, because students feel they have to take every A.P. course offered to get into the "right" school, they forego other classes they enjoy. I would encourage kids not to do this. What we can do is continue to talk about colleges as a match to be made and not a prize to be won. We can work more on career counseling so that students make better informed decisions about what college they should be choosing. I would never want to see a student give up a class they enjoy simply because they think they need something they really do not.
 
What is next?
 
The next step for Maine South is for building leadership to keep the lessons of the movie, and your feedback, at the forefront of our discussions and planning for the future. We will be meeting several times this year to talk about how to improve student life at Maine South. The questions you generated will be shared with these groups and help to inform our decision making. Change is really a process, and this movie and your comments are the first step in the long process of making Maine South a school that continually gets better. Sometimes it might feel we are moving slowly; however, this endeavor is a marathon and not a sprint. So please bear with us, give us time, but let’s keep the conversation moving forward to insure we are addressing what really needs to be addressed in our schools.

Thank you,
Shawn P. Messmer
Principal
 
P.S. – While I attempted to answer the majority of questions, there were some that were so specific that I did not feel it appropriate to answer them in this format. If you are a community member who feels your question was not answered, please feel free to contact me directly through email or by phone.

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