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Superintendent’s Blog – December 13, 2013

The week before Thanksgiving, the Board of Trustees held a workshop on helping all students succeed at Mira Costa High School.  This is a topic the Board has been wrestling with for years.  We used the term “the middle student” for a time, looking at student who is not in Advanced Placement classes, not receiving special intervention assistance, and not involved in the school as our target.  That has proven to be difficult to quantify.  In our last meeting, the Board came down to the simple but powerful idea that we want to help ALL students succeed.


We began our workshop by reminding everybody that we are talking about Mira Costa High School – one of the nation’s top high schools.  By almost all measure of success, Mira Costa is an amazing place.  The students, teachers, employees and parents who make Mira Costa what it is are incredible.  But my job as Superintendent is not to say, “We are really good, so let’s just cruise.”  My job is to ask the question, “How can we get better?”  I am proud to work with a Board of Trustees that feels the exact same way.  I have worked side by side with many Mira Costa employees who ask the very same question.   When I see world-class athletes, business leaders, doctors or successful artists, I have rarely heard the words, “I’m good enough.  I don’t need to be any better.”  Let’s be the same way.  That is why our Board Workshop asked the question, “How can Mira Costa High School be a better place for ALL students?”


One idea that kept on being spoken about at our workshop was the way we define success for our students.  Perhaps we can be clearer about how we do that.   The most common way we define a successful student at Mira Costa is a student who has the grades and activities to be accepted by a four-year college.   But I know there is more.


After the workshop, a parent recommended that I read Building the World's Greatest High School, by Richard Parkhouse and Guy E White.  I did so and I’m glad I did.  If I did not know better, I would say the authors came to our workshop and wrote a book addressing the ideas that we discussed.  The authors note that in many schools, much of the attention goes to “Royal Family,” the elite scholars and athletes.  That leaves many students who are not getting the same attention.  Parkhouse and White lament this, writing,  “Imagine coming to school everyday having people turn their back on you, not being respected for your gifts and talents, or being told that your accomplishments are not worthy when compared to the accomplishments of other groups on your campus.” 


Somehow we need to help all students find success, then find ways to make each person feel valued.  One of the parents at the workshop said, “I have a child with a 3.5 GPA who feels like a failure at Mira Costa High School.”   That is something we cannot tolerate!  Each and every person must feel valued in our school.    We can recognize students for all kinds of successes, slowly expanding the base of students who are officially deemed successful.  And it has to be real success.  This is not ‘everybody gets a trophy’ kind of success.  Students are smart.  They know what real success is.  We need to help them achieve it.


The successful students we recognize should be able to point to the teachers who inspired them.  I love the idea of not only recognizing successful students of all kinds, but also constantly recognizing the teachers who were most inspirational to these successful students.  Parkhouse and White write, “When a student sees an older peer seemingly crossing the finish line alone, the most they can say is, ‘Wow, I hope I can do that.’ Conversely, when a student sees an older peer walking arm-in-arm with an inspirational educator, coach, or mentor to the finish, that student says, ‘Hey, I have that teacher! Maybe she can help me too!’  Again, it’s about helping ALL students succeed. 


One of the other major themes that developed in the workshop was the idea that students want to be challenged.  One of the most poignant statements was, “Students rebel against rote memorization.  Teachers need to demand critical thinking.”  This fits in with how Advanced Placement courses are taught.  This is completely in line with the ideals of the Common Core and 21st Century Learning.  Descartes did not say, “I memorize, therefore I am.”    Students need to think, communicate, collaborate and create.  Students (and all of us) need to be pushed and stretched.


“People in the World’s Greatest High School are a lot like a rubber bands. If you hold a rubber band in the palm of your hand it has no power; it does not do anything. However, if the rubber band is stretched and then let go, it is propelled somewhere.” (Parkhouse and White) So how do we stretch our students in all classes: Advanced Placement, College Prep and electives?


One of the ideas for challenging students that rang most true in our workshop was the concept of student-centered instruction.  This is the opposite of rote memorization.  If we are using student-centered instruction, we are moving away from an “instructional paradigm” where teachers are primarily the imparters of knowledge and transfer knowledge to students.  Instead, we are moving toward a “learning paradigm,” where students learn through research, discovery and construction of knowledge.  In this model, teachers stop being the “sage on the stage,” and become coaches and mentors. 


We are already seeing this model pay incredible dividends in our elementary schools and middle school with our Writing Workshop method of teaching.  In this model, teachers meet with students individually and help each student progress.  Students are no longer pupils just turning in assignments.  They are authors preparing their ideas for publication.  And the person who is most important is a high quality teacher coaching each student. There are also many examples of student-centered instruction at Mira Costa, including our internationally acclaimed Model United Nations program, run by students, and coached by teachers.  I would describe our state teacher of the year, Michael Hayden, as a coach helping each student to succeed. 


When I was an AP US History teacher, I viewed myself as a writing and thinking coach, using history as a subject.  The essence of the class was helping students be successful according to the writing rubric published by the College Board.  Whenever a student would get an essay test with at least a five out of nine, I brought in milk and cookies, and we had a whole class celebration.  It was always my goal to have every student get a five on at least one test during the year.  I judged my success based on how many students got to celebrate this achievement.


The final theme from the workshop was the often-repeated idea that students respond to teachers who listen and develop a sense of community.   Several teachers, all of whom are well known for knowing their students well and valuing what students have to say, were mentioned by name.  This is why coaching and mentoring are better words than teaching to describe what teachers do.  A coach works with you and helps you constantly improve.  A mentor is someone you can trust who cares deeply about your success.   Our best teachers do far more than teach.  They coach, inspire and build community, leading to incredible success in our students.


So where do we go next?


Let’s start recognizing all kinds of success at Mira Costa, going beyond the ‘Royal Family.’ would love to see us work with student council and teacher leaders to figure out how to best do this.   And we need to find ways to recognize the inspirational teachers and employees who helped them to find success.


As we begin to move into the Common Core, we should take the opportunity to move towards student-centered instruction.  We should have more students succeeding in our Advanced Placement classes.  I would love to see 75% of our seniors pass at least one AP exam.  But it’s more than that.  How do we make our college preparatory classes places where all students are thinking, creating, collaborating and communicating?  These courses have more flexibility than do AP courses, so they should be even more student-centered.  This is big change.  While it certainly does happen in many classes, it is not the norm for high school teaching in the United States.  It’s about making our objectives clear, then serving as mentors and coaches to help all students reach or surpass those objectives.


Finally, how do we develop more of a sense of community in the classroom and the school?  Over my career, I have watched teachers who are good teachers, but amazing coaches.  When I look at them in the classroom and on the field, they are two different people.  One is a teacher, giving information to students, and then testing them.  One is a coach, giving information, practicing, giving feedback, practicing again, encouraging, criticizing, but always focused on student success.  The teacher addresses the whole class, while the coach melds the students into a team and community.  Students like the teacher in the classroom.  Students love the coach, and will run through a brick wall for him or her.    Why isn’t that coach in the classroom?  Coaching can be the perfect teaching that we want to see in the classroom, designed to help each and every student succeed.


All of that from a Board workshop!  I look forward to as much dialogue as possible on these ideas, and other ideas that have been generated.  I encourage you to read Building the World’s Greatest High School.  I will be working with our teacher leaders on our new Teaching and Learning Committee, student leaders on the Mira Costa campus, and with our Board as we continue this critical conversation.  I look forward to your comments.

Michael D. Matthews, Superintendent