by Fred D. Baldwin
Leaders in business and government agree on the critical importance of improving the education of young people, especially in mathematics, science, and technology. In 1996, the governors of 41 states and the heads of 48 major corporations joined at the National Education Summit in a call for higher standards, efforts to change school curriculums and teaching techniques, and More help for schools.
In Appalachia, a multitude of efforts are under way to improve the quality of instruction in public schools, particularly in math and science. These efforts take different forms at different schools, but they all tend to share a common aim: first, raise expectations; later on, raise them higher.
One project, the Appalachian Contextual Teaching and Learning Network, combines a pilot program that uses videoconferencing for teacher training with an effort to establish closer links between schools and employers. In a participating West Virginia high school, that's resulting in closer attention by teachers to what employers expect of their graduates.
Another program, High Schools That Work (HSTW), run by the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), emphasizes a systemic approach to school improvement, starting with high standards.
Even projects that focus on specific goals—like the Appalachian Rural Systemic Initiative (ARSI), which is working to improve the quality of math and science training (see On a Roll for Science and Math) do so within a broad framework of systemic improvement. The ARSI experience suggests that providing a few teachers with direct help in attaining high standards sets in motion positive changes that ripple through school systems.
"What we're into is a system problem," says Gene Bottoms, SREB's senior vice president. "It's not that we have bad teachers or bad administrators, but we have a system, particularly at high schools, that does not expect a lot of those youths not planning to go to four-year colleges."
It's tempting to focus on one element in the system—teacher training, for example, which is in fact an important part of most school improvement efforts—but that would be misleading. Successful educators across Appalachia insist on describing their professional development efforts in a broad context. What they're saying is that focusing on any single element is like expecting a football coach to describe a championship season in terms of one training factor, such as how many hours players spend lifting weights.
The best way to understand what Appalachian educators say about their goals and strategies is to look at what's taking place at several schools.
Real-World Problems, Real-World Expectations
In late May, West Virginia's Keyser High School opened its classrooms to local business leaders. Approximately 20 business owners and executives sat through a full day of classes—listening, taking notes, and, at the end, giving suggestions on how to make the curriculum more relevant to work.
That approach complements and contributes to an effort to bring more real-world problems, examples, and resources into the academic high school curriculum. Keyser High School participates in the Appalachian Contextual Teaching and Learning Network, which is run by the Center for Occupational Research and Development (CORD), based in Waco, Texas. CORD has extensive experience in the design and testing of materials that bridge gaps between academic and vocational courses.Its staff has recently developed a set of skills and competencies expected by employers, significantly influenced by the surveys of 325 employers done by Keyser and three other schools.
"As a science teacher," says Mike Marsh, who coordinates the CORD effort at Keyser, "I wasn't very career-oriented six months ago. I thought [a strong emphasis on jobs] would detract from what I do. But with the way technology is going, we have a responsibility to the kids to give them more than calculus."
Similarly, local employers give Keyser High School high marks for efforts to reach out to them—and listen to them. Curtis Durst, co-owner of WKLP-WQZK Radio, describes numerous contacts with students and teachers—mock interviews with the kids and, this summer, a teacher's week-long participation in the daily work of a radio station. "They are amazed at how much we use computers now," says Durst. "It's not just coming in and playing records. All of our music is stored in the computer. You've got to have good computer skills to be an announcer. All of our commercials are done digitally on a computer."
The lessons Keyser High School teachers are absorbing aren't confined to math, science, and technology; they're getting a strong message from employers about the value of teaching good work habits, dependability, and teamwork skills.
"We're finding," says Margaret Phillips, who serves as Keyser's School-to-Work coordinator, "that what we're expecting of our students is not what employers expect. At [a local company], if you miss three days without a doctor's excuse, you lose your job. Our students could miss as many as 20 days [during a term] before it becomes a serious disciplinary issue."
In a sense, these insights are an early by-product of the Appalachian Contextual Teaching and Learning Network, whose long-range goal is to demonstrate the value of two-way videoconferencing in providing professional development to teachers in rural and small-town schools.
One Appalachian school in each of six states—Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, and West Virginia—participates in the project, which is now in a pilot stage. Sony Corporation donated videoconferencing equipment (monitors, cameras, software, and remote control hardware) for the four schools that didn't already have them. A technical specialist from CORD assisted with installation. By the end of the summer, CORD will have offered 20 professional development workshops over the system; almost 30 more are planned for a second phase of the project, during which teachers initially trained will serve as mentors to colleagues.
"In addition to virtual field trips," says Charley Rouse, project manager of the network, "a lot of other things are coming online. Teachers can talk to a variety of people whom they could not otherwise meet. This is one of the most equitable pieces of equipment we've ever had. We've had students in rural districts say, 'We're getting the same thing rich kids are getting.' "
High Schools That Work
The school system in Douglas County, Georgia, has been a High Schools That Work site for most of this decade. Its emphasis is on honoring and using the skills of outstanding teachers. Almost 250 high schools and vocational-technical centers in 12 Appalachian states participate in the program; nationally, HSTW has a network of more than 800 schools in 22 states.
Small schools can have a tough time finding candidates for positions requiring specialized knowledge, especially in science. That's a challenge that requires creativity to meet, says David M. Hill, director of school improvement for the Douglas County school system.
"When you have a smaller applicant pool," Hill says, "you have to do a better job of staff development. Fortunately, today, with the kind of technology that's available, you can get training without the teacher ever having to leave the site."
Hill mentions several Douglas County strategies:
Teacher leaders. Outstanding teachers get extra training, which they share with colleagues. "We stopped looking for experts outside of our school," Hill says, "and we started looking for experts who were right down the hall and around the corner.
Study groups. These are conducted by teacher leaders. "Teachers identify more easily with another teacher than with a college professor."
Demonstration classrooms. The teacher leaders' classrooms are always open to drop-in visits by colleagues. "The feedback we've gotten is fantastic."
Above all, however, what Hill emphasizes is raising expectations. For example, almost all high school students are enrolled in college-prep English; as a result, the 1996 HSTW assessment showed Douglas County had the highest gains in reading of any HSTW site. In another instance, the faculty began teaching Algebra I to students who'd been slated to take a less demanding "pre-algebra" course and did so "in a covert way"—that is, without telling the students that they were taking the tougher course. Subsequent tests showed that these supposedly weaker students did essentially as well as students whose ability to handle algebra had never been in doubt. Many went on to take trigonometry and calculus.
"What this told us," says Hill, "was that our expectations had been too low. What we tried to do—and this sounds so simple you almost wouldn't write about it in a magazine article—you simply tell people the standards are higher, and people rise to the occasion. It's a culture that's created. You can create it in a classroom. The most powerful thing is to transmit it to an entire school."
Breaking Down Barriers
Frank Kincaid is principal of the Lee County Area Technology Center (ATC), a technical school in Beattyville, Kentucky, that serves Lee, Owsley, and Wolfe Counties. (All three counties are designated by ARC as economically distressed.) The Lee County ATC offers courses in electronics, welding, automobile mechanics, and building trades. Adult classes include numerous certification and licensure programs.
The Lee County ATC has been part of the SREB network since 1992. Kincaid, however, encouraged by his superintendent, had worked prior to that with the area's high school principals to break down artificial barriers between his vocational-technical program and their academic programs. The schools hold joint staff meetings and have abolished "homeroom" to provide 25 minutes each morning for a common planning time.
"Each side of the fence gains a respect for the other," Kincaid says. "A lot of times a math teacher will have difficulty teaching a child the Pythagorean theorem. But you can put that same child in a carpentry class where they're learning to lay out rafters, and that is the Pythagorean theorem."
If this year's student test scores match last year's, the Lee County ATC will earn an "awards" rating under the Kentucky Education Reform Act. Meanwhile, the school is working through an agreement with nearby Hazard Community College for a sequence of courses that will enable students to move seamlessly from secondary to post-secondary education.
Kincaid also mentions that parents in the area serve on advisory councils that make recommendations on school decisions, including teacher hiring. Additionally, each teacher is assigned several students to advise on career choices. In the eighth grade, students are required to indicate interest in a broad career field; for example, health, education, or manufacturing.
"When you begin to look at things like that," he explains, "it begins to dictate what kind of courses you offer. Then that dictates the staff development. It's kind of like a circle. It's not just the teachers. It's the parents, the students, and the administration. I'm not saying we're hitting a home run all the time, but that's what we're trying to do."
A Decade of Improvement
School officials in Randolph County, West Virginia, don't claim to hit a home run every time either, but they have a scoring record that would be the envy of any major-league team: a full decade of year-by-year improvement in math and science test results. The county's four high schools now rank near the top of SREB's Appalachian roster.
Cynthia Kolsun, who oversees secondary-school curriculum development for the county, describes a number of teacher training initiatives, but, like other educators interviewed, does so in the context of broader school policies and practices. For example, Randolph County high schools have block scheduling—longer classes, but fewer per day. This means fewer preparations for teachers but more planning for activities to engage students' attention during 90-minute periods.
Kolsun emphasizes the importance of integrating real-world problems into academic courses. This doesn't mean "dumbing down" anything. On the contrary. At one point the Randolph County teachers did a readability analysis of text materials. The results were something of a shock. The hardest-to-read materials were in the vocational program—automotive manuals, for example.
Recognizing that their graduates would soon have to read and understand technical manuals, the Randolph County faculty and administration raised the reading bar for all English classes and included more job-related materials. (Kolsun says the district relies heavily on "applied" curriculum materials from CORD.)
Some teachers had initial reservations about a new school policy called ZAP—"Zeroes Aren't Permitted." Students who don't understand a lesson can't shrug off a failing grade on a quiz. They get second chances, but only after doing makeup work. ZAP has succeeded in getting across the message: Everything we do is important; you don't have to grasp it quickly, but nothing can be skipped.
"Every year since we've been part of SREB, we've had an increase in our math and science scores," Kolsun says. "The first year or two, the increase was not significant, but we kept up. We have been working steadily. We have not let up.
"You don't walk into our classrooms and see kids with their heads down on the desk. We expect a lot. And when we do, we get it."
Total quality management analysts describe a system as having seven elements working together: aim, customers, suppliers, input, process, output, and quality measurement.
It's easy to apply these concepts to schools: parents, employers, and society are "customers"; teachers are "suppliers"; entering students are "input"; graduates are "output" (as are dropouts). "Process" includes classroom teaching and many other activities; "quality measurement" potentially applies to any activity, not just how well students do on tests.
Everything begins with "aim," say Appalachian educators, which is why school reformers put much emphasis on raising standards. The negative effects of low standards percolate through a school system; by the same token, the positive effects of high standards change the whole system for the better.
"The big challenge," says Bottoms, "is to unlock ourselves from impressions that our students aren't smart enough to do complicated work. We've got enough pace-setting high schools in Appalachia to know that the bar can be raised and students can rise to the occasion. Schools that do change get big jumps in student achievement. Their dropout rates begin to go down, and it opens up vistas of opportunity."
Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.