Thursday, November 21, 2019

Necessities for a Future-Ready Education

It's always good for a laugh if you want to give it a try.  Find a 1970's model, rotary dial telephone and put it on a table in a room full of middle school students.  Without prior instruction, ask someone to volunteer demonstrating how to make a phone call.  Some kids will try to act like experts, like it's no big deal while others look at it with curiosity and with a facial expression that says, "Really?  You can make a phone call with that?"  Most of them are shocked when they find out that you pick up the receiver first, dial the number with your fingers in the holes and wait for the line to ring on the other end.  The facial expressions are priceless.

It's the 21st century.  Making a phone call on a rotary dial phone is obsolete.  So is walking over to the television and changing the channel manually.  The "technology revolution", which began when Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type and the printing press was born, is still in full swing.  So many things have become obsolete in just a few decades. 

American education is one of those things.  The public education system was designed to provide widescale, standardized preparation for industrial-age workers.  It's a "factory system" illustrated well by a 1982 video of a song called "Another Brick in the Wall."  It's only good (and even then marginally so) with batches--cramming kids into arbitrary age groups and doing its business on an arbirtrary calendar schedule.+  It hasn't changed much.  It has integrated technology into the schools in some cases, not all, but even with that, has not succeeded in improving the measurable quality of education and in many cases, has proven to be nothing more than an expensive distraction. 

It was intended to bring about culture change.  Initially, what was standardized in public education were the influences, customs and culture of Protestant America.  Protestant Christianity had such a strong influence, in fact, that in the early part of the 20th century, the Catholic dioceses began creating an extensive, church-supported school system as an alternative to public education because so many of the children of their members were being converted in public schools.  As the secular humanist movement recognized the incongruence between Protestant influence in a publicly-funded, government owned institution, they succeeded in getting the courts to rule out Christian influence in the schools, opening the door for them to gain control of public education and subsequently to use it to bring about culture change compatible with secular humanist philosophy.  When conservative Evangelicals finally realized the public education system was a humanist "factory," converting upwards of 80% of their church youth out of the churches by the time they finished college, they started their own system of Christian schools, a movement that hit its heyday in the 70's and 80's.

Habits are hard to break.  Christian schools have had a unique opportunity to develop an educational model counter to the "factory mentality" of public education, but in many cases, instead of taking advantage of the opportunities we have, which include a high level of parent involvement, small class sizes, facilities that demand a more creative approach to learning, budgets that demand a more innovative approach to integrating and using technology which changes more rapidly now than ever, and the ability to connect Christian faith to a student's vision for the future, we have developed a "bunker" or "silo" mentality, hunkering down in defensive mode or protecting our pet personal preferences in education and cultural perspective. 

A Christian school is positioned to bring some ideas and innovation into the world of education that a "factory" school can't do.  We have the opportunity and ability to "focus students on developing a rich context for life-long learning" and provide students with authentic growth, discipleship, mentoring and real-life application of their faith.*  What we do is provide them with the tools they need to think critically and make their own decisions and directions in life based on the knowledge and skills they acquire in our schools. 

We need to do an excellent job teaching foundational skills and knowledge in the lower grades and then balance that with instruction that takes static knowledge and turns it into useful wisdom.  It is a big risk to teach students skills, set a good, strong Christian example and then put them in a position of responsibility where they have choices about determining their own path and making their own decisions based on the critical thinking ability that was part of your instruction.  They are going out into a real world with thousands of ideas that will compete for their attention, time and money.  Most of what they will face will be counter to the Christian faith they've been raised with.  If they've been given critical thinking skills and prepared for what they will face, chances are good they'll make the right choice. 

In a bunker, you're protected from exposure to whatever it is that put you in the bunker in the first place.  If it's bombs or shells being lobbed at you by an enemy, you're protected as long as you're in there.  If your Christian school has a bunker mentality, then its students are safe only as long as they are in the "bunker."  Venturing out exposes them to ideas that come as surprises because they've never been exposed or taught how to respond.  But if you give them the life skills they need while they're in the school and the opportunity to learn about what's "out there," then they can learn how to react or interact on their own, while they're still in your school under your supervision because you gave them the safety they need to make their own choices and the opportunity to make them. 

A word about technology. 

There isn't any educational research which points to improvements in student learning that are triggered by the use of technology.  That's because technology is simply a tool to efficiently and effectively deliver an educational objective.  Technology does not improve learning capacity.  In theory, it makes the process more efficient. 

You won't find many teachers who would trade their classroom smartboard for a slate chalkboard.  Having software available to put up video examples, film clip illustrations, or to give a test by having the questions come up on the screen and the students with a push button remove keyed to their student number in your gradebook click the correct answer, give automatic feedback on their score and then load it into your electronic gradebook.  But no smartboard will improve the tests actual scores.  Nor do the video examples lead to increased learning.  Your visual learners will love it and respond but it will drive the tactile learners crazy. 

At a school where I previously served as administrator, a parent who owned a tech company wanted to donate I-Pads so that every student could have one.  The idea was to upload e-editions of their textbooks so they wouldn't have to carry books or notes or anything but their I-Pad.   So we tried it one year with ninth grade. 

First of all, not all of the textbook series had e-editions or uploadable versions.  Of the three that did, the math text would not load very well because it wasn't compatible with apple.  The screens on the Apple TV in the classroom were distorted.  When I observed one class period, I found that two students had somehow hacked out of the restrictions on the pad and were visiting gaming sites while instruction was being given.  One I-Pad battery died during class.  Information on two other tablets was slow to load.  One student forgot to turn off his speakers.  Within the same school year that the tablets were ordered, a newer version came out making them obsolete and parts and repairs were difficult to get.  It was a nice thought, but just not practical.  We saved the personal tablet experience for juniors and seniors in Physics, Chemistry, Pre-Calc and Calculus AB.  By the time they finish college and hit the career field, the computer they were using in high school will be obsolete anyway.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

The Academic Strength of Midwestern Christian Academy

You're paying for a "private" school.  You have certain expectations about the strength of the academic program.  Those are reasonable expectations.  You want to make sure that your child is learning at a pace that keeps them on track for achieving the expected benchmarks of students in order to move on to each successive grade level, graduate from middle school, go to a high school where their talent and ability will be challenged and be able to move into college or into a career field and have the necessary skills.

When you enroll at MCA, our understanding and hope is that you understand our mission and purpose is unique among the academic choices which exist in our society.  No other kind of school works to make the connection between a child's development of knowledge and practical life skills that will enable them to develop a career or handle a job which will support their family and fulfill God's purpose for their life and the development and formation of their Christian faith.  We acknowledge God as our creator and in so doing, we acknowledge that each child has been given a mission and purpose in life that they begin to develop when they trust Christ as their savior.   We see the school experience as discipleship and instead of separating faith formation from academic achievement, we put the two things together so that students not only learn valuable, marketable skills but they also understand that life's problems are only resolved by trusting God, not by depending on human intellect alone.  Christian schools are the only educational institutions which operate under that educational philosophy.  We hope that this is the priority for each family who enrolls their children at MCA.

MCA does not screen students by requiring an admissions test to enroll.  Academics are important to us but we believe that every child should have the opportunity to learn in a Christian school environment and that their faith formation is a priority.  Many "private" schools, including some Christian schools, exclude students who are not able to pass an entrance exam from enrollment.  We believe that faith formation of our students is the most important achievement coming out of their school experience.  Not everyone will be a valedictorian, salutatorian or honor student when it comes to their math, history, science and verbal skills grades but our desire is that every child who graduates from our school does so with a love for God, an understanding of the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross for them and the example for living that he taught and set and a commitment to serve as a "citizen of the Kingdom" through their local church.  Some of them will be doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers and business executives while others will be plumbers, construction workers, truck drivers, waitresses and a few will be pastors, children's ministers and missionaries.  But our desire is that all of them be servants of Christ's kingdom in the church and Christians who make their ministry to others a priority.

That doesn't mean our academics are inferior to that of other schools.  The measurements and assessments we use to measure student progress are based on standards required of all schools, specifically those in the same city and state.  By comparison, the academic program at MCA is equally as rigorous as that found at other Christian, parochial, faith-based schools in our city.  MCA's students, collectively, rank in the top two "quartiles" when compared to students nationally in mathematics and language arts (grammar, writing, vocabulary, spelling, reading).  We use an achievement test that is based on national standards and while each individual student's score varies widely depending on their ability and effort, our school scores indicate that we do better than two-thirds of all the schools nationally who use this assessment.  This includes all kinds of schools, public, charter, private, religious-based, academic-oriented and on-line.  Considering that we are an inner-city school, with a third of our students coming from non-native English speaking families and from diverse economic and cultural backgrounds, those results indicate that the academics at MCA are excellent.

The results of our assessment can be broken down into three specific ways of measuring achievement:
  • The Percentile Rank measures how the students on each grade level scored in mathematics and language arts compared to the other students who took the same test.  MCA's percentile ranks range from 65% to 75%, meaning that our students did better than 65 to 75 percent of the students in the other schools who took the same assessment.  Generally, the smaller the class, the higher the percentile.  
  • The Grade Level Equivalent measures the progress that students made in advancing toward the next grade level.  For example, a class that meets the academic standards of the test would advance one percentage point, or 1.0, during the course of a school year if they had met the expectations of their grade level progress.  MCA's classes advanced an average of 1.6 points, meaning that our curriculum and instruction effectively prepares students for work that is advanced above the grade level expectations of the test's standards.  
  • The Curve Equivalency measures mastery of the essential learning objectives.  This is really an indication of the quality of instruction by teachers as well as the quality of the curriculum materials that are used in the classroom.  On a graph, curve equivalency is measured by the famous "bell curve."  The mid-point of student achievement is based on the percentile point where the "peak" of the curve represents the score that is in the exact "middle" of the students scores, with half getting scores higher than the middle, and half getting scores lower than the middle.  The middle point for all the students nationally who took the same assessment was 52%.  The middle point for MCA's students averaged above 90% and we had two grades where all of the students were above the middle point.  
So how does that compare with other schools in our area?  

Comparing our academic achievement to that of the public school system, especially in Chicago, is not only difficult, but produces a distorted perspective.  Because we are a private school and we charge tuition, we have virtually 100% parent involvement in their children's education.  The public schools don't have anywhere near that luxury.  They must take all students, including those who require special educational services.  While there is a "top" group of selective school programs in CPS that show high academic achievement, it is because they test their students and in most cases accept only the highest achievers as students, usually fewer than 10% of those who apply.  Compared to the assessments used by the public schools, MCA's academics would be off the charts in virtually all cases except the selective programs.  

There are several Catholic schools in our area, as well as a couple of parochial schools operated by a Christian denomination.  MCA actually compares very favorably to the schools in the Catholic diocese who publish their student assessment information.  Most Catholic schools, like MCA, do not turn down students based on an entrance exam or academic ability because their main purpose is to train students in the Catholic faith and tradition and they don't exclude students from that opportunity based on academic performance.  Looking at the data, it can be confidently stated that MCA students do a little better overall than their Catholic school counterparts.  The same can be said of those in other parochial schools in our area.  As far as I know, the other denominationally-affiliated schools in our area have similar admissions policies.  Some have developed a reputation by promoting themselves as strong, academic achieving schools but MCA is equally as strong when it comes to actual assessments.  

We have some real advantages here.  Small class sizes don't help the budget, but they lead to accelerated student progress which we are currently seeing materialize even as the first grades came out this week.  We primarily use Abeka textbooks in grammar and language arts and their phonics-based reading program is top notch.  Almost all of our students are reading ahead of expected grade level in guided reading.  We now use Purposeful Design for mathematics through sixth grade and that helped make some dramatic improvements in mathematics achievement last year.  It is noted for its rigor and for its hands-on approach to teaching math concepts.  MCA is an excellent school and you made a good choice when you sent your children here.  Don't make a bad one by moving them based on rumors or gossip that you might hear.  Get your information from a reliable source.  

We know there is room for improvement.  We have a long list of things that we are working on as we move toward full accreditation--something that no other private, parochial school in our area has yet done--to boost our academic program.  For the benefit of our middle school students, we have made some changes in mathematics, including designating 7th grade math as "Pre Algebra" and eighth grade math as "Algebra 1".   We are developing a much more comprehensive program of integrated technology into our instruction.  Our science curriculum needs a boost of STEM objectives at all grade levels.  We are introducing collaborative research projects in both science and social studies.  

A word of caution.  There are no guarantees.  Not every student will be an "A" student or a high achiever.  But they may not be called or equipped for that.  Education, by its nature, is geared toward measurement of accomplishment.  There are plenty of students who are underachievers, whose aren't motivated by their potential.  But there are plenty of others for whom a "C" is representative of their best work and who may have aptitude and interest in things other than what can be achieved in a classroom.  Every student needs to be encouraged to find their purpose in God's will.