Teachers and administrators at the most rapidly improving schools in the country aren’t working harder than teachers in Tennessee. They are just working differently.
That was the message Dr. Willard Daggett, CEO of the International Center for Leadership in Education, shared with more than 600 teachers and administrators from the three school systems in Blount County during program Thursday afternoon at Maryville College.
Daggett also spoke that evening to a community-wide audience who gathered to hear his take on what successful systems are doing to better prepare children for tomorrow’s opportunities.
“The schools that are the most rapidly improving are not working harder than you,” he said. “The issue is working differently.”
Daggett said part of the problem lies in that Tennessee’s puts too many curriculum standards on students to reach. “I’m not telling you to put more on your plate, but take some off,” he said. “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.”
Daggett said the state is well positioned because it adopted Tennessee Diploma Standards that raised the level students had to achieve to graduate. Those standards now more mirror national standards, he said.
The speaker said economic realities must be taken into account in the coming years. “We’re going to have less money in public education than we have had in the past few years,” he said. “We’re going to have to figure out how to get the biggest bang for our educational buck.”
Daggett said when learning to work efficiently, the pain is short term. Changing the culture regarding education is imperative, he said. “We need to change not because schools are failing, but because the world is changing,” he said.
Daggett said technology is the No. 1 reason school systems need to change. “Technology is changing the world,” he said.
The speaker shared a video presentation of Wolfram Alpha, a web search engine similar to Google that is becoming popular, especially among teens who use the web more than adults.
Daggett said that while Google works using words, Wolfram Alpha uses concepts or meanings. The engine can give pages of research in seconds. “They use it for homework. It will do a 16,000 word term paper in 3 minutes,” he said. “Kids are using this technology, and we don’t even know about it.”
Daggett showed images of computers in watches. The keyboard is scanned from the watch onto a flat surface in front of the watch. “It is predicted in two years this technology will be in the buttons of clothes,” he said.
The speaker said school systems must keep up with changing technology. “Our schools will become museums,” he said, if changes aren’t made.
Daggett said today’s teens learn differently than previous generations because previous generations “learned to do.” Daggett said brain research has shown information is stored in the back of our brains, and it is used in the frontal cortex of the brain
“The more you use information, the deeper the pathways are from the back to the front of the brain,” he said. “Today’s kids have literally been wired differently. They are natives to the technology world. They do not learn to do, they do to learn. You’re going to see schools have to become more discerning for how 21st Century students learn. They will live and work in a technological world. That’s why we say the next generation of assessment will be done online.”
The speaker said that in addition to technological advancements, globalization is also changing education. “Our kids will have to compete with students all over the world,” he said.
Daggett said that while the United States was one considered the most educated with the best economy in the world, other countries have caught up to the U.S., in part because many of these counties, like China, choose who is educated.
Daggett, who has a daughter who has severe mental retardation, autism and is a severe epileptic, said his daughter wouldn’t be in school in any other country.
“We have a dual commitment to excellence and equity,” he said. “In America, which kids do you teach? (We teach) all of them. You can’t have equity without economic success, and you can’t have economic success without educational success.”
The speaker said there are five nations in the world that, despite three years of recession, have strong and growing economies: Vietnam, Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia and Panama. “India and China are also not going away,” he said. “We are no longer the world’s only super power. We are so accustomed to being the only super power with the highest per capita income and first in economic growth.”
Daggett said education has changed the economies of these countries. In the 1980s, Shenzhen, China, was a fishing village. “Today it is more metropolitan than the West,” he said.
The speaker said many countries are striving to ensure students get more class time before they graduate. “We have more accumulated debt than the rest of the world and the shortest school day. India and China are moving from 240 to 270 days,” he said. “By the time they graduate, they’ll have twice the amount of time in the classroom as children in the United States - for those children they choose to educate.”
Daggett said the United States became a world power 100 years ago through the strength of its manufacturing base. Now China has become a manufacturing power. “China ships more in a day than it did in all of 1978,” he said.
The speaker said the key to the nation’s economic future is its schools. He said educators should consider if schools are teaching students what they needs to know. School systems, he said, should be focusing on teaching students to apply knowledge to real world predictable and unpredictable situations.
Daggett said the most rapidly improving schools are the ones using curriculum that provides rigor and relevance. “Relevance make rigor possible for most students,” he said. “A third ‘R’ is necessary - relationships.”
As an example, Daggett mentioned his grandson, a second grader who enjoys playing football. The boy’s teacher learned he liked football and used that to teach math. “Every pass play in football is a math problem,” Daggett said.
Daggett said teachers should learn to use the students’ natural interests as a way to teach what they learn in the classroom. What often happens is just the opposite, he said.
“They pull the students out of what they do love and put them into something they don’t in the name of higher standards,” he said.
The speaker said the nation’s most rapidly improving schools are trying different techniques.
“They’re looping their teachers. Second grade teachers move up and follow their students to third and then loop back,” he said. “When they move from eighth to ninth grade, they make an impact, and then they are better teachers when they return to the eighth grade.”
The schools also eliminated department chair positions in favor of interdisciplinary chairs. In this scenario, teachers work together to ensure student success, he said.
Daggett said Tennessee in particular needs to decide what the academic priorities will be. “Over a period of time, your curriculum has gotten bigger - 30 percent larger than the average curriculum,” he said. “Your focus is on breadth rather than depth. You can’t do it all. You need a blueprint.”
Maryville City School director Stephanie Thompson said she has heard Daggett speak a dozen times in 10 years. “I was glad all of our teachers had the opportunity to hear him. He always has lot of things to say that make you think about what practices you have in place and what you are doing in schools and in districts,” she said. “We’re going to talk about some of those ideas and look to see which of those should be implemented for our school system.”
Blount County Schools director Rob Britt said this was about the sixth time he has heard Daggett speak. “Every time you hear him, you pick up a new jewel or two, and this time was no different. I think what his message to us is we really need to think about change, not in terms that we’re doing bad job, but in terms of the world is changing, and we need to think how we can change to best meet the needs of students to prepare them for this changing world,” Britt said.
Alcoa City Schools director Tom Shamblin said he heard a lot of positive comments from the Alcoa staff. “They came back, and I will say, they were challenged,” Shamblin said.
Shamblin said the teachers see the need for change and were encouraged that Daggett didn’t blame teachers for the gap in skills students currently have between what they’re learning and what they need to learn. “He just explained very well that the world has changed faster than we have been able to increase our skills,” he said. “He has us thinking, and that is a good thing.”