Sunday, July 21, 2013

My sit down with superintendent Vitti Part 3: A New Vision for Duval : Empowering Teachers

A New Vision for Duval : Empowering Teachers

Superintendent Vitti said he wants to set up a system where teachers can both teach their way, and at the same time be held accountable for results. He said that, in the past, administrators “confused compliance with quality instruction,” explaining that word walls and complicated standards-based boards did not lead to better instruction. He wants teachers to be able to achieve a deep teaching of the standards through reteaching, having the students apply what they learn, synthesizing, analyzing and looking for that teachable moment.

I brought up the fact that he had already warned administrators once not to threaten teachers about a lack of adherence to the learning schedule, now called curriculum guides, and that he indicated he wanted to create a culture of collaboration and support where teachers were empowered. He threw out the word “autonomy” several times, but often paired it with accountability. He said, “When I was a teacher, I wanted to teach the way I felt best, but I also expected to be held accountable.” Now, by contrast, teachers are often told how to teach and what to teach and then held accountable—which  is incredibly unfair. 

Vitti also recognized that discipline was a weakness in the district, another area where he said the district lacked direction, and he understands it is very important that the district start to address it. Stage one of his plan was to put deans of discipline and certified ISSP teachers in every middle and high school. He said principals are currently being trained on the code of conduct, and when school starts,  students will likewise be trained. Later he plans to start a task force that will contain teachers. It’s rare in the education world to have teachers help revise the code of conduct and to have them help develop a range of progressive penalties for bad behavior.

I asked him to expand on the role of the ISSP program and he said kids will no longer be able to treat it as a joke, which, since our schools have site-based management, happened in some schools. Furthermore, he said students in ISSP will be required to attend all the days assigned, where before, an absence would qualify as a day in ISSP. Students in ISSP  must also complete all the work assigned,and will be visited by counselors, which could lead to more counseling if needed. 

Discipline is just one component of student accountability—something the last administration effectively destroyed--and don’t take my word for it. The changes Vitti is making as speak for themselves. Another component of student accountability is being successful with course material, and having a work ethic—something that many teachers complain students have lost. The superintendent has made it more difficult for students to skate by, by eliminating the safety net of grade recovery.

There will be some growing pains that accompany the elimination of grade recovery. The Times Union did a story that said 12,000 kids in one year used it to pass a class. I personally believe the liberal use of it has at least partly led to our increased graduation rates. Without it more kids are going to fail classes and this is not me criticizing the superintendent. I agree with his decision, this is just me pointing out the obvious.

I asked him if this could potentially lead to administrators harassing teachers forcing them to promote kids without the skills they need, and the superintendent said, “…principals should not have a quota of harassing grade reflection.”  I took this to mean principals will not be allowed to cajole teachers into passing kids if they haven’t mastered the material, that they will continue to watch to their Ds and Fs, how many kids fail their class. The superintendent said teachers will be held accountable and if to many kids are failing they may have to rethink what they are doing but he also indicated that is a kid fails a class it will be on them to make it up and administrators will not force teachers to pass students who don’t deserve it.

Unfortunately, where all of the above sounds great, none of it will work unless he enforces it with principals. Many principals are stuck in Plato’s cave, that is, they only know what they know. What happens when they start to complain to teachers that they’re falling behind on the curriculum guides, or that their word walls aren’t standards-based, or that they are writing too many referrals, or that their class grade point averages dip? To use his word, administrators can no longer confuse “compliance” with quality instruction. It’s easy to have all these teacher-friendly, student accountability ideas, but unless there is leadership in place to carry them out, all we have is lip service.