Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Teaching the Lower Track

For years our school has split our curriculum into three different tracks. We've called these tracks by various names and have adjusted the terminology from time to time. Currently we have three tracks: modified, regular, and honors. Students are placed into these tracks through scores on the placement / entrance exam. As of late I've begun to worry about the students in the low track.

Does tracking beyond honors and regular actually increase student learning? I see two sides to the situation. We are about to embark on a massive curriculum revamp as part of a switch to a trimester and 1:1 computing model. The debate around modified courses is about to began.

To give the context we track in four areas: math, science, social studies, and english. On one hand the observation is made that our staff at the modified level is not specifically trained to teach with different methods for students of lower academic ability. In a school of 850 each class has about 20 students tracked into the modified lane. A large percentage of these students have IEPs for various reasons but many do not. These students spend the entire day together moving from class to class with the exception of a few electives. Concern has been raised that by grouping our lower scoring students together for four years they continually reinforce to each other low expectations. Some argue that if we placed these students into regular classes they could manage to make it through if teachers were willing to differentiate their instruction to address the learning needs of these students. This group believes students would be better served by being placed in the regular lane.

On the other hand a number of our staff are opposed to eliminating the modified track with the concern that by placing these students into the regular lain the curriculum would be watered down. That teachers would be forced to teach to the needs of the lowest students. This group believes adamantly that eliminating tracking at this level would have a profound negative impact on the school as a whole.

My personal feelings are mixed. I'm curious as to our students thoughts. As soon as school kicks back up in the fall I plan to collect some student opinions on the matter. I can see some merit to the views of both camps. I'm curious as to how other Catholic high schools address these issue. Perhaps we are in the minority by tracking perhaps were not. Maybe it would be better to place these students in regular classes but assign them to a special study hall and delay the foreign language elective for a couple of years. I'm sure a number of schools have addressed these issues and have come up with a solution.

Some make the argument that Freshmen and Sophomore year should be untracked and admittance to the AP / Honors lane be determined only by academic performance during the Freshmen and Sophomore year.

Please take the survey link here and share your practices and ideas. Link Here

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Reflecting on Year One of Technology Integration

During the past school year we implemented a plan to give all of our instructors Apple Macbooks. We also greatly increased the strength and bandwidth of our wireless network. Our newly formed director of instructional technology took on the challenging task of teaching and implementing technology goals for the 2008-2009 school year. Below I reflect on what worked, what didn't, and what we learned in the process. Our hope is others can learn from our efforts or give us some great guidance as we move forward. This post is inspired by Scott McLeod's latest post on urging school leaders to take seriously their obligations to advance technology integration through Leadership Day 2009.

1. Upgrading the wireless: Well it worked and it worked well. We went from a network that often slugged around at paces so slow checking email was a chore. The upgrade for the building all told cost around $30,000 for a high school of 800. I'd tell you are square footage but I don't know it. What we learned: design with the ability to add access points to handle 1:1 depth. Having a great network guy and team player helped enormously. After all its always about the people in the end.

2. To filter or not filter? Once the network was up and blazing what to do about filtering. We take a rather open approach at PND and aren't concerned with blocking social network sites, youtube and the like. After all why block what can be used for educational purposes. The "fear" card is too often overplayed and shouldn't be. Live a little. Of course we block the porn and other soul ruining sites, gambling etc. What we learned: blocking educational tools is a waste of time and more importantly creative talent. We encourage teachers to use facebook for their class nor personal communication with students. Here are some examples. Link to art page, school facebook account.

3. Choosing appropriate goals: Obviously giving teachers a laptop comes with the expectation that they will be used. What we often find is fear can get in the way. We also know that the worst way to do technology development with staff is to make them all sit in a room or lab at the same time. The problem is everyone is at a different level. Some teachers can easily create websites, blogs, and use social networking. Others struggle to create a powerpoint. With this in mind we created the position of Director of Instructional Technology to work individually with teachers throughout the year on their two identified goals. Teachers were given a number of options. Overall I would say this worked well. Not very well for some faults on my end. What we learned: I presumed all the staff would be pretty much a self starter in making their appointments and times. Those 5% of the wayward souls often need some more direct over sight. It will be provided next year. A year end survey of staff helped account for progress. I also made the mistake of assigning our Director of Instructional Technology to teaching too many sections not leaving enough time to work with the teachers. A great wiki was started about tech shortcuts and all and building PLNs with a number of staff was incredibly valuable. Once again it is about the people and our director did a great job in a challenging and new role.

This coming school year we are gearing up to prepare our staff for teaching and working in a 1:1 environment. Much work must be done between now and then but we are looking forward to the whole process.