The Last Word November 2011

By Mary Boderick

My son and daughter, now in their 20s, can cook delicious and nutritious meals. When my older child was 17 months old, we began a holiday tradition of making gingerbread cookies. I started with modeling and moved to guidance, and over the years my children expanded their repertoires with glee. They learned reading and following directions, measurement, cleanup, and trying again when something flopped. Before long, they required no supervision, and today their culinary talents far surpass mine.

This fall, our town’s first selectman, the owner of a popular restaurant, talked about finding his own passion in cooking. He thanked our schools’ staff for sharing their passions with our students, observing, “Without that passion, it’s hard to excite students about learning.” He specifically recognized an English teacher legendary for cultivating the gifts and talents in her students.

If we are to ignite the potential in each child, we need teachers who infect children’s minds with enthusiasm about their subjects. That’s why I am worried about the national trend line -- erosion of local authority and ownership of the core curriculum. Over the years, as Congress and the U.S. Department of Education assume greater authority over our schools, we lose the local teacher’s voice in developing curriculum and instruction that respects each child and connects that child to learning.

Instead of asking our staffs to examine research, look for models of excellence, and incorporate the best of what they find, today many expect our teachers and administrators to focus instead on national standards and assessments and to prepare our children for tests written far from that teacher/child connection. We risk reducing local curriculum development and lesson planning to teaching to those tests. Standardization, by definition, aims at the middle, potentially boring the high achiever and frustrating the low achiever.

Is this how we prepare children to be creative, innovative problem solvers who are hungry to learn? I understand how we got here. We have wide variations in curriculum quality and delivery across communities and states. Many have advocated -- and I fervently agree -- that we need to ensure each child has access to high- quality learning opportunities and rich curriculum. However, we have a lot to lose in diminishing local involvement in -- and consequent ownership of -- the development of curriculum, a natural trajectory given the increase in directive authority at federal and state levels.

In my last column, I wrote of the importance of moving decision-making as close as possible to those affected by the decision. The U.S. Army has done just that, believing that soldiers on the front lines of battles are savvier about local conditions and appropriate responses than those in command centers. The Army has found that outcomes improve with an empowered workforce. Motivation experts agree: To learn, we must feel competent, autonomous, and connected to others.

That’s why local governance is so important. Student learning leaped by a multitude of measures in my district when we focused on the pursuit of excellence and made decisions at appropriate levels -- empowering staff. Today, when our administration brings the board a curriculum for adoption, we always ask about the teachers’ role: Were they integrally involved in the development process, looking at research and models of excellence? We want to see -- up front -- their excitement about the subject. We want to know that diverse learners in our schools, as opposed to average learners across our state, will be motivated by the curriculum.

As board members, we should ensure the kitchen is well equipped -- good lighting; a decent, calibrated stove; and enticing cookbooks. And we want an inspired guide -- one who loves the students and knows how to excite them about the potential to create the finest examples of culinary arts.

How do we apply this to our board work? First, we must set our vision on excellence. Staff will be inspired by such a vision, delighted to be part of a system that values quality and learning so that each child aspires to excellence. Second, we must enable and encourage staff to generate child-centered curriculum and instruction, created for the children in our system. Third, we must protect school boards’ authority to carry out local responsibilities. This means refocusing federal and state supervision away from command and control and toward empowering. When we standardize our instructional programs, our children lose their discoveries. We risk losing excellence and creativity and effective problem-solving. Instead, let’s build our national competitive edge of ingenuity and creative thinking. Let’s not standardize the American child.   n

Mary Broderick (mbroderick@nsba.org) is the 2011-2012 president of NSBA and a member of Connecticut’s East Lyme Board of Education.