Tuesday, January 26, 2010

In Praise of Education

Here is an op-ed piece that may or may not appear in newspaper print. It details some of the work being done around Wyoming through the Wyoming University-School Partnership.

In Praise of Education

Great Teachers, Great Schools, and the Foundation for Both

by David Barker and Audrey Kleinsasser

Imagine being in school again. That’s not hard, just about everyone has vivid memories, good and bad, about grade and high school experiences. If those memories are positive ones, they often focus on teachers who stand apart.

Great teachers know their stuff. They create experiences in and out of the classroom that prepare students to demonstrate mastery on a wide range of assessments, not just those mandated at state and federal levels. In fact, great teachers help students develop the competence and confidence to face the difficult problems that are the norm of real life and the world of work.

It’s not local folklore or a gut feeling that tells us teachers are the most important component of the massive, often overwhelming, educational machinery called schooling. Every kind of research backs it up. In fact, higher academic achievement can be linked to students having a great teacher three years in a row. However, we should recognize that three great teachers in a row is aiming low. Students deserve to have a great teacher every year.

Wyoming has worked hard to attract, prepare, and keep great teachers. Salaries, for example, have improved dramatically and raise the bar for teacher performance. In addition, local and state leaders, indeed the profession itself, require professional development that takes the form of workshops, classes, advanced certifications and degrees, and conferences on a variety of topics. Teachers increasingly are becoming involved in some kind of professional development during the summer months when students are not in school, much of it planned and implemented at the district level.

“Simultaneous renewal” is a particular professional development approach promoted by the Wyoming School-University Partnership. Different from reform which may be a one-time event and aims to fix something that’s corrupt or broken, renewal is ongoing. Those committed to renewal recognize that schooling is complex, that it affects and is affected by a society’s economic, legal, political, and social structures. Partners in Wyoming’s educational renewal include 21 of the state’s 48 school districts, all of the community colleges, UW, the Wyoming Department of Education, and the Wyoming Education Association. To prepare great teachers and support the kind of educational institutions that citizens living and working in a democracy need and want, the Partnership believes it’s going to take a commitment to renewal from stake-holders in each of these groups.

Renewal activities bring together teachers across K-12, community college, and university levels. Together, they work on challenges that are solved best through collaboration across levels, in-depth discussion, and resulting actions.

Teaching biology is one example of partnership-driven renewal. For more than five years now, the Wyoming School-University Partnership has created ways for the state’s high school, college, and university faculty to work together. At these meetings called summits, biology teachers bring examples of student work, compare that work against state and national teaching standards, and talk through expectations for learning. Teachers across levels get to know each other, share problems, and come to see that they have more in common than they thought. Together, they catch a glimpse of a vision that’s larger than an individual classroom or even a school building. With the expectations and opportunities of Wyoming’s Hathaway Scholarship Program and core curriculum preparing high school students for college and university success, working toward common understandings and commitments across levels is crucial.

This work isn’t easy. Even now, with increasingly sophisticated systems of accountability and high expectations for collaboration, some teachers prefer to work alone, focusing on their classrooms and their students. The Wyoming School-University Partnership’s challenge is to invite collaboration and provide convincing examples of ways it can be accomplished. To that end, partnership work mirrors democratic practices and two core values of schooling in a democracy.

One value is individual growth and development. Teachers, parents, and others want each student to thrive academically, but also socially and emotionally to grow into a wise and healthy adult.

Second, in a society that does its most important work through vigorous debate, eventual compromise, and some kind of consensus, schooling plays a significant role. School settings teach individuals to hone skills necessary to be contributing members of a larger community or set of communities. That might be one’s neighborhood, a workplace, a place of worship, or the many social groups that contribute to a democracy’s vibrant energy.

These core values frame great teaching and the Partnership’s mission. The Partnership will be going public with its work January 28-29 during its “In Praise of Education” conference in Casper. The meetings showcase the kind of professional development that provides a solid grounding, as together, we support great teachers and create great schools.

There is no cost to the conference, but online registration at www.uwyo.edu/wsup is required.


David Barker is the superintendent of Platte County School District #2 and President of the Wyoming School-University Partnership Governing Board. Audrey Kleinsasser is the Partnership’s director and a professor at the University of Wyoming. To learn more about work of the Partnership, go www.uwyo.edu/wsup.