Turns out, education reform’s a lot simpler than you might think.
It’s not about the curriculum.
It’s not about the standardized tests.
It’s not about the classroom count.
No: It’s about the kids.
The remarkable work done by teacher Kristi Ford with the federal GEAR UP Grant underscores that crucial lesson, so often ignored in the scramble by politicians to impose changes for which they can take credit.
The GEAR UP Grant paid her salary and assigned her the task of tracking one year’s class at the high school from the freshman year through graduation. She had an open-ended chance to figure out what each child needed and find a way to provide that support.
Sometimes, that involved conventional interventions like tutoring in math and reading.
Sometimes, it involved innovative ways to engage and challenge kids, like offering the Academic Decathlon class in the hour before regular school starts. That class showed its worth recently with brilliant, creative, open-ended performances by Payson kids at a regional academic competition. The students spent all semester studying every possible angle on World War I, then matched their knowledge against students from other schools.
But mostly, Ford discovered she had to become much more deeply involved in the lives of her students so she could understand the challenges they face — and to keep from losing them.
In one fascinating piece of research, she did a detailed analysis of students’ knowledge of math. The math curriculum builds carefully all through the primary grades, with students mastering building block skills each year. When she did detailed diagnostic tests, she discovered curious gaps in the math knowledge of different students. Whole chunks of knowledge went missing, making it harder and harder to build over the gaps created by the missing blocks. Once she documented the problem, she talked to students and their families. Again and again, she discovered that the gaps existed because some trauma like divorce, a death in the family, an illness or some other crisis so distracted and absorbed and wounded the student that they quit paying attention in school.
Her intervention has already resulted in big gains in reading and math scores for the cohort of students she’s following. We don’t yet know whether her interventions will also affect things like the dropout rate and the college attendance rate. We’re betting the district will see an effect — and that the GEAR UP Grant will point the way toward true reform.
The school board seems alert to the message and determined to apply for a renewal of the federal grant. We hope that the district will also find a way to build on that foundation — whether or not it gets another installment of federal money. Perhaps the new student achievement teachers at each school site can take on the task. Clearly, each cohort of students entering the high school — and perhaps the middle school — needs someone like Ford to keep track and reach out for them when they fall.
So fill out the paperwork, administer the standardized tests, put up with the politicians — but never forget what Kristi Ford has proven.
It’s about the kids.