LLOYD GRAY: School change a challenge

By Lloyd Gray

In the early 1990s, many Tupelo elementary school classes were teeming with innovative approaches to learning.
Worksheets had given way to more creative forms of student expression. Collaborative work centers with teachers as facilitators had replaced a desk-in-rows, keepstill-and-be-quiet mentality.
Some schools had multigrade classes – kindergartners and first graders together, for example – in which students proceeded at their own pace. “Portfolio assessments” replaced letter grades and report cards. Higher-order thinking, as opposed to unapplied rote learning, was the emphasis.
Some parents and teachers loved it. Many thought it chaotic, unsettling and ineffective. Guess who won?
I thought of those days last week while listening to Bill Daggett, the internationally recognized education expert, as he admonished teachers, administrators, parents and the general public to embrace wholesale change in schools. The Common Core standards that are coming in Mississippi and 45 other states in a couple of years will require considerable change, most especially a focus on teaching students not just to regurgitate facts but to think about what they mean in the real world.
Also essential, Daggett said, will be integrating all disciplines – teaching reading in math classes, for example – and embracing the way kids live and learn with technology.
All of this – minus the technology, but with a focus on learning styles of the time – was what the Tupelo experiment those many years ago was trying to get at. The impetus came from employers who said the old ways weren’t sufficient to prepare workers who would need to be team players and creative problem-solvers. Today’s push for change also comes in large part from fear that our current education approach isn’t sufficient to keep the U.S. economically competitive.
But many parents and teachers didn’t like change back then. Tupelo roiled with community meetings and dissatisfaction with the schools. Demand grew for a return to the old ways, to the security of worksheets and “As” and “Bs” on first-grade report cards. The final blow came when the first state accountability rankings had Tupelo in the middle of the pack, behind several surrounding communities. State assessments were geared to a traditional environment, and Tupelo’s approach didn’t translate well on the tests.
So the schools ditched most of the changes, the superintendent left, administrators focused on a uniform curriculum and raising test scores and before long, the district was Level 5 in state rankings. The traditionalists had prevailed.
Today across the nation the tendency is to place the blame for resistance to school change wholly at the feet of schools. Certainly there’s institutional resistance to overcome, but in the past parental and public aversion to change has been a major factor as well. We will need an across-the-board openness to change as we retool our education system in the coming years.
That will require better preparation and explanation than change-agents of the past may have provided, along with stronger oversight and management. But the mere fact that the change isn’t what we’re used to is no longer justification to discard it.
As Daggett underscored in Tupelo last week, the world is no longer what we’re used to either. We have to do things differently, and that means turning some of the old ways of school on their head. Other countries get it. Will we?

LLOYD GRAY is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.

Click video to hear audio