Race to the Top

As we Race To The Top it is necessary to focus on character education.

In this year's Newsletter, The Academy for Character Education at the Sage Colleges in Troy, NY features an article on President Obama's race to the top. Definition from Race to the Top official website:

 Through Race to the Top, we are asking States to advance reforms around four specific areas:

  • Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy;
  • Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction;
  • Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and
  • Turning around our lowest-achieving schools.”

Below are responses from two of The Academy’s Board Members:

Lynn Macan, Superintendent of Cobleskill Richmondville CSD, Response:

1.  What do you think is the relationship between school climate and character education?

I think that character education has a great deal to do with making the climate of a school and district positive.  Through sustained effort and commitment to intentional character development, there are common understandings of the "ground rules" for interactions between everyone that walks the buildings of any school/district.  These common understandings, hopefully, insure that interactions are respectful, kind, and helpful.  In addition, when decisions are invariably made that do not make 100% of the people happy, the enduring commitment to mutual respect helps to keep the climate from getting overwhelmingly negative on the part of those dissatisfied.

At the same time, character education cannot be something "done to" the students...it has to be something to which all commit, and see its relationship to their own behaviors, actions and thoughts...something that takes a great deal of time to develop in a consistent manner.

 

2.  What do you think is the relationship between academic excellence and ethics?

In my mind, it is impossible to separate academic excellence and ethics.  As schools, it is our obligation to model for our student’s ethical behavior, and provide students with regular opportunities to have discussions about ethical behavior, ethical decisions, making "right choices", and the consequences of choices that are made.

The current emphasis on performance character is an important dimension.  As Tom Lickona has always said, it is not enough to "know the good", but one must be committed to feeling and then acting upon "the good".  In addition, it is important for school districts to wrestle with the concept of rigor.  Students need to be "striving"/"stretching" in their learning...which indicates that learning can and often should be a "struggle".  Students need to learn the importance of "personal best", and always committing the whole of their knowledge and talent when doing anything, but from the school's perspective, in doing their school work.

 

3.  Ethics/excellence/school culture

Students intuitively know who the adults are that are genuine - teachers, administrators, aides, etc.  Students know when an adult "suggests" behavior that is acceptable for students, and then does not demonstrate the same behavior as an adult.  There is nothing more damaging to the relationships that students have with adults than this.  If the students perceive that the adults are committed to the same things that they are requiring of them, they are more likely to be committed to them...whether character, ethics, energy, application of talent, dedication to helping others, connecting in a personal way, etc.

 

4.  How does one build trust in their school, and why is this important?

Without trust, even the "brightest" of people will not succeed.  Few things in life are accomplished by individuals, and it is imperative that schools help students to develop the skill of collaboration.  True collaboration cannot take place without trust. So, the elements of trust- being truthful, being consistent, being committed, being respectful all come into play when helping students to understand the complex concept of trust.  In addition, we need to develop in students and each other the skills to address situations that will arise from actions that have the effect of diminishing trust, or from situations that involve conflict...as both are also inevitable when people are involved.

 

5.  Should a district measure success beyond test scores?

Our district mission is to prepare our students for a successful, happy, and productive future - the future of their choosing.  So, as a district, we need to know that we are preparing each student for the path that they might choose.  If a student is planning to go on to college, we need to equip them with not only the knowledge, but technological savvy, every-day "independent living" savvy, financial savvy, time management savvy, etc. in order for them to be prepared for the different dimensions they will be faced with at college.  For students planning to go to work, we need to equip them with the appropriate communication, organizational, technology-specific, collaborative skills that they will need to be successful in the work place.  And so it goes, for each path that a student might choose.

In addition, our district sees the value of the 21st century skill development for all students, regardless of the path that they choose.  We also attempt to provide them with as much breadth (music, art, foreign language, technology, sports of all levels) that we can, so that they develop openness for different things, and develop "habits of mind" that will serve them well in the future.

 

6.  What is the parent’s role in the student’s success?

Parents are partners in the "project" of preparing students for success.  We need to work with them as partners, so that as much as possible, we are on the "same page" relative to the importance of education, what it takes to do well in education, and preparing children to know that learning is a lifelong requirement.  Schools need to provide information to parents, venues for *two-way communication, and opportunities for parents to build their skills and knowledge on behalf of their children.

In instances where the school values and commitments do not align with those of the parents, schools have the obligation to be clear about the school expectations, and that their child will be held responsible and accountable to those expectations when they are in school.

 

7.  How does a school asses their culture?

The assessment of culture is both formal and informal.  Our district surveys children and adults.  We also take note on a daily basis the interactions that take place throughout each school and place within the district.  We hold "forums" for both children and adults, giving them "voice" on issues that are important to them.  We take note of student and adult attendance, of discipline referrals, of complaints and compliments, and informal feedback that we receive throughout the community.

 

8.  How do you create a social climate within a school?

The social climate is driven by the folks in the schools/district.  We have regular opportunities for the whole district to come together, as well as many school/department based opportunities for the same.  We have a myriad of clubs and activities for our students - both during and after-school time. Schools, by their very nature, are social places.

 

9.  How do you create an intellectual climate within a school?

Rigor has a great deal to do with academic climate.  In addition, it is important for adults to model their learning, and intellectual development.  It is important that we draw the relevance of learning to future aspirations of our students.  We teach our students about all kinds of career opportunities...to demonstrate the importance of intellectual development.  We encourage our students to share their thoughts about their learning, and we provide time for teachers/staff to meet together to further their craft.

 

10.  What rules and policies need to be implemented so that all school members are accountable to high standards of learning and behavior?

Our district is like many, with board policies and student handbooks and codes of conduct.  However, we also provide time for such learning to take place, and we are making it clear that in our district, no one works alone- we must collaborate to be the best that we can be for our students.  We are selective in our interview processes, and make it clear that we are a learning organization.  We train our administrators, department heads and teacher leaders on continuous learning ideas, and invest in the resources to insure that such learning takes place.  We have annual evaluations, which include conversation regarding learning/skill development that has occurred, and setting goals for more of it with each successive school year.

We are developing the climate where everyone holds each other accountable for their learning and behaviors...based on common expectations and commitments.

 

11.  Do schools need to start any traditions or routines built around character education?

Tons!    To name a few:

   1.  Visual Culture for character expectations

   2.  Commitment of board and community related to monthly virtues

   3.  Building and district-based committees on Character Education

   4.  Morning program at elementary level

   5.  Student assemblies and secondary level

   6.  Student Council

   7.  Honor Society

 

12.  When staff and students share their voice, should there be structured platform?

As indicated above, there are both formal and informal "avenues" for student and staff "voice" to be heard...our mantra is "come to the table"- your ideas are important.

 

Vincent Porfirio, Assistant Dean of Students at The Sage Colleges, Response:

1. What do you think is the relationship between school climate and character education?

School climate and character education truly go hand-and-hand. When administrators are working to maintain or create a desired environment it is essential that they partner not only with students but with staff, support personal, and community members. The Obama Administrations’ “Race to the Top” program discusses the importance of school climate. This newly crafted legislation indirectly places a focus on Character Education. Creating a vibrant and inclusive environment takes a lot of hard work and dedication and can really only be achieved by role modeling and fostering positive character traits: acting responsibly, respectfully, honestly, fairly.


2. What do you think is the relationship between academic excellence and ethics?

Sadly ethics and morality have fallen to the wayside in much of America and it only takes a glimpse at the news cycle to recognize this. However, instead of becoming apathetic it is important to embrace educators and administrators who are truly advocates and mentors. Thankfully, we often do not have to look far to find quality teachers and administrators. Often we look for large symbols to make points—The President, Governor, Superintendent—we need to stress the importance of everyday role models like parents, coaches, teachers, and neighbors. Understanding that ethics in education is the cornerstone to creating twenty-first century leaders out of today’s youth is crucial and must not be overlooked. Simply put; students look to adults, and especially to those in the education system, for guidance and we must all be cognizant of that.


3. How does one build trust in their school, and why is this important?

Building trust in schools is a long and often times challenging process. Think about the delicate process it requires building trust within a personal relationship or new friendship. Now, expand that to a school house, high school, or school district. It can seem overwhelming. To those who say that leadership needs to come from the top, I respectfully disagree. True leadership comes from everyone, at every level, in an organization or institution. This means that everyone has a vested interest in the process as a whole and this is where all members of a community are responsible for their actions. Here we have one of the critical aspects of character education; everyone is a role model, not just the Superintendent, Principal, or School Board members. We all need to, or should I say, have to, work to build that trust.


4. Should a district measure success beyond test scores?

Absolutely! Assessment is extremely important and should never be overlooked to accurately measure the success of students, teachers, and administrators. However, test scores only tell us so much. I’ve worked in classrooms where students are actively engaged with the material, absorbing content, and reflecting on issues and practices and still the class average on a unit test or quiz is less than satisfactory. Part of the issue that I have with the national test scores is the “one-size-fits-all” approach that is truly crippling to the educational experience. I believe that educators from across the board would agree! We need to rethink education and we need to do it fast. Our focus needs to be on creating dynamic and innovative leaders and this means taking more time to focus on student’s strengths and encouraging students through their accomplishments.


5. Is it important for schools to use a common language, and does it help define the school's culture?

Being pragmatic and clear in what you are saying is an important aspect of having a well managed school. An institution should foster a dialogue that brings members together; all too often academic language creates barriers and has soloing effect on departments, administrators, students and community members. We need to get practical and in a lot of ways back to basics. Transparency in what you are saying will help to bring about a common language that is essential to creating partnerships internally as well as externally.


6. What is the parent’s role in the student’s success?

Parents and guardians play an unbelievably important role in the success of a student. Modeling positive character traits and instilling a moral and ethical code within a child is critical to their development as a member of our society. Maintaining relationships with families and community members is a tried and true way of enhancing student success and transitioning learning to places outside of the classroom where they need to be taking place continuously.


7. How does a school asses their culture?

Learning the idiosyncrasies of a new environment takes patience and the willingness to fully understand why things are the way they are—no matter how ludicrous something may appear. Assessing culture can take a number of forms. The easiest and least expensive way of doing this is by creating opportunities for members of your school to voice concerns, opinions and ideas. An open line of communication will radically change the way that the administration is viewed and will help to trouble-shoot potential issues. Holding open forums, community meetings, and open-houses with the public will allow for institutions to get real-time feedback. Allowing opportunities for members of given institutions to openly dialogue can be as simple as visiting classrooms, touring buildings, and frequenting the break rooms. School leaders with open-door policies and an attentive ear are able to assess the culture of their school, adapt when necessary and implement and embrace new ideas.   


8. How do you create a social climate within a school?

Creating a social climate within a school is achieved through modeling behavior. By showing students how to conduct themselves at the school you are empowering them to take on important traits that will benefit them throughout life. As “Race to the Top” points out, a school’s success is dependent on creating school climates that actively support student engagement and achievement. Again, this needs to come from every member of the community. Getting teachers and support staff to realize the importance of positive behavior and role-modeling will enhance a positive social climate. It is as simple as “monkey see; monkey do.”


9. How do you create an intellectual climate within a school?

Fostering an intellectual climate should be one of the easier tasks an institution faces. The creation of a pedagogically sound school means having a clear focus on education and learning. Fundamentally, a place of learning should have this at its core but many schools still seem to struggle with this. My advice; rethink what education means to you! Start thinking outside the classroom and away from the confines of the desk and chalkboard to find new places where teaching and learning can take place. Embrace the expertise of the faculty by allowing teachers to have flexibility within the curriculum design. Programs and events on a school’s campus can also bring about valuable educational moments. Partner with a local library or historical organization to bring real-world examples to allow students to give learning materials a context. In the end, education needs to be the backdrop by which the rest of your school functions and initiatives branch out from.


10. What rules and policies need to be implemented so that all school members are accountable to high standards of learning and behavior?

A clear, concise, and easily obtainable set of policies need to be drafted, framed and revisited continuously in order to create accountability standards within a school. One thing that I’ve learned over the years is that “change” is inevitable. With that pearl of wisdom comes the sometimes unwanted truth that we all need to learn to adapt to the fluctuations that occur around us. Creating a high standard of policies that require learners, educators, and administrators to be challenged is a difficult but rewarding process. I’m not one for a “cookie-cutter” approach to education so it is vital that each institution find the best practices and policies that work for them. However, it should be said that every institution should look to create a functioning and vibrant institution that is on a constant quest for excellence. This will undoubtedly be varied for each school and this is most certainly a positive way of looking at academia as a whole.


11. Do schools need to start any traditions or routines built around character education?

Creating traditions built around character education is vital to the success of a learning environment. By developing and implementing aspects of an institution that are important to the participants a school is able to embrace what makes it unique. Celebrating diversity is something that has been lost within educational settings. Responsibly highlighting what makes your school great is something that instills pride, dedication, optimism and hope. Many administrations have opted to transform their organizations to fit a mold that has proven unsuccessful. In an America that has lost the reins on political-correctness we have become afraid to look at culture and diversity. Showing students that what makes us different empowers us needs to start with the climate, culture, and overall mission of a school.


12. When staff and students share their voice, should there be structured platform?

It really depends. I believe that communication is key in making you successful in all of life’s ventures. Being open, honest, and able to take constructive and critical criticism allows you to grow professionally and personally. Classrooms need to loosen rigid structures and perform much more like hybrids. That is to say that learners need to be given adequate time to process and question material that are given to them. This is an uncomfortable proposition for many educators who are tied down to overwhelming assessment requirements, poorly designed curriculum or for those who do not have the proper expertise and experience on a given topic. Nothing seems to resonate more with students then transparency, honesty, and a feeling of ownership and partnership within a classroom. Take even the most mismanaged classroom and give students the opportunity to take charge on a project and you will see positive results. Education today has become very authoritative and stifling to the organic experience that is learning. Instead of taking time to appreciate a subject or have a thought-provoking dialogue we are often rushed by time constraints, policy barriers, budgetary issues, and lack of proper support services. Allowing students a voice in the classroom needs to be made a priority.     

 

13. Other thoughts or feedback?

As a lifelong learner and current educator I have had time to reflect on the education system that we have here in America. Sweeping legislation like that of the Bush Administration and more recently with Obama’s “Race to the Top” always starts off with good intentions. Sadly we as educators need to understand that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to education is not only unsuccessful, it’s also unrealistic. Reform in schools is definitely needed and I have witnessed firsthand the challenges so many of our academic institutions are facing. I believe that we need to be creating an environment where students are able to express their thoughts and ideas. We need to be celebrating diversity and what makes us all different. We need to learn about what makes our communities great and unique from others around the world. We need to be implementing innovative curriculums at every level. We need to continue to look to the future and to the fundamental issues that our children will face; globalization, radical technologies, clean and sustainable energy sources, and most importantly, an understanding of the world around them. “Race to the Top” does provide the framework for educators to begin restructuring schools. “Race to the Top” also has a strong and much needed focus on character education in terms of school climate and community involvement. But “Race to the Top” falls short in the simple sense that schools need to take this frame and flush it out. They need to embrace what makes them great and add that to this skeleton of a program. Only then will we begin to see real change. Only then will we begin to see students getting the education that want, need, and deserve.