Hopefully, pendulum stops swinging for this new ideaOnce you enter the field of education and hear of a new idea for teaching or student behavior or any area of reform, you will also immediately hear an older colleague make one of the following comments: “We tried that back in aught-four and it didn’t work.” “Oh, not this again.” “Don’t let the pendulum hit you as it swings by!”
By: Joe Graves, Mitchell superintendent, The Daily Republic
Once you enter the field of education and hear of a new idea for teaching or student behavior or any area of reform, you will also immediately hear an older colleague make one of the following comments:
“We tried that back in aught-four and it didn’t work.”
“Oh, not this again.”
“Don’t let the pendulum hit you as it swings by!”
The pendulum remark, incidentally, refers to the widely believed idea in education that we are constantly trying something new but that if you just wait a while this too shall pass, much as a pendulum swings in one direction for a while and then moves off in the opposite one in its inexorable and meaningless path.
The “pendulum effect” combines with schools’ tendency to make lots of changes all at once, such that no single program can ever enjoy sufficient attention and resources to actually be successful. It is a recipe for simultaneous chaos and malaise, which doesn’t even sound possible but, frankly, it is.
What this suggests, and what the experience of successful schools demonstrates, is that schools should adopt new programs only after they have first field-tested them, are willing to give the time and energy to make them work, are committed to them in the long-term, and can generate data to determine their success or lack thereof.
All this sounds fairly theoretical but I am pleased to say it is theory that was applied particularly well in the last two years by the Mitchell Middle School with their ICU program. The program, named after the intensive care units of hospitals, is deceptively simple — to require that every student in the school complete all of their course work at an acceptable level of quality and that they be given the intensive attention — time and energy — to do so.
When we explain this to people, they, on occasion, ask “Well, didn’t we always do this?”And the answer is, “well, sort of.” Yes, we made assignments and gave tests with the expectation that all students would do them and do them well but some students just didn’t. They didn’t hand in their work and received a zero for the assignment or handed it in but with little regard for quality and so received very low marks. The penalty for such behavior is lousy grades and even retention. The problem, however, is that some students will simply accept both. When this continues long enough, it becomes their expectation, their norm, and poor grades, dropping out, and lowered life expectations are the inevitable result.
As the Mitchell Middle School faculty, staff, and principals observed this depressing trend among an admittedly small group of our students, they identified it as a problem and sought out a solution, one of the candidates for which was ICU. Middle School staff met and studied and read and decided ICU was the best of those candidates. For one semester during the 2009-10 school year, they piloted the program among at first half and then all of the seventh graders and saw promising results.
Bolstered by some success, they reallocated teacher and staff time and resources into the program and implemented it school-wide last year. The students most affected by it frankly resisted the enforced expectation that they would complete every assignment and examination at a high level of quality, as well as the reminders of what they owed every morning as they stepped in the front doors and the need to stay after school every afternoon until they had paid off that debt. Students resisted but staff and teachers and principals stood firm. As a result, last year, failing lists shrunk, GPAs went up, retention recommendations dropped, and the number of students at the Middle School who demonstrated proficient/advanced ratings in math and reading not only increased overall (from their already high levels) but the students within that group who scored “advanced” increased even faster.
The data, then, are in, or at least the preliminary data, and they look promising. As the program continued this school year, one noticeable change has been a palpable decline in student resistance to the expectations created by ICU. It is becoming the new norm.
With any luck, it will thereby halt at least one pendulum dead in its path and move a group of students on to a much brighter one.