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A New Lesson Plan

(page 4 of 5)

Jaime Young jokes around with her St. Charles North classmates.

In crafting plans and measuring progress, teachers and administrators get help these days from the enormous stockpile of available information about students. "You can make very data-driven observations," says Kim Zupec, of St. Charles North. "You look at standardized test scores and attendance rates and the number of students taking [advanced placement] courses, and the number and kinds of disciplinary actions you have, and which test questions seem to be making sense to the students, [as well as] which ones nobody can answer correctly." A devotee of DuFour's system, Zupec explains that relying on data is not supposed to make each student a faceless entry on a spreadsheet. The opposite, in fact, is true: Educators want to find out what works and what needs to be tweaked, precisely so students are handed the individual tools they need.

The data can be tapped in a variety of ways. Last fall, Donald Fraynd, the principal at Jones College Prep, struggled while taking the science reasoning section of the ACT, the standard college admissions test. "It was hair-pulling time," he says. "Panicky. At the end, you're just filling in the last blanks—C, C, C, C—to get some answers down."

Fraynd and the entire 60-person Jones faculty took the science reasoning section of the test last year because they wanted to find out how they could better prepare Jones students for the kind of critical thinking that the ACT measures—and that college and professional life require.

After taking the test, Fraynd and the Jones faculty realized that the school's science program was light on skills such as the ability to draw conclusions by comparing two graphs. "You need to be able to look at graphs in a really sophisticated way," Fraynd says, "and we found we weren't being all that deliberate in teaching that skill. We weren't asking [students] to take the next step with charts and tables and infer a conclusion." Result: During the subsequent school year, the science teachers at Jones incorporated more graphs into their classes.

Steve Wood, a Stevenson science teacher, checks his "D and F rate" as often as some people check the thermostat. His goal is to keep it low, but not through grade inflation. When he is teaching the metric system in natural science, for example, it is essential that everyone understand how to convert measurements to metric. Most students do, quickly. But there are always a few who remain mystified—"and I want to get them over the bar, too," Wood says. "They're going to need this." For them, there are additional work sheets to be completed and turned in at a resource center, and there is tutoring if needed. "The underlying assumption is that it's not OK for some kids to fall through the cracks," says Wood, who has been at Stevenson 11 years.

The same data that show where students fall short can also pick out the failings of teachers. Under the student-centered approach to education, teachers and administrators have to agree on a set of items that all students should learn. That requires collaboration, an uncertain process among high-school teachers, a group that one educator says is used to working as "a bunch of independent contractors sharing a parking lot." But if students are expected to learn specific information, educators have to decide what it is.

At many schools, teachers are pressed just to find the time to plan together; that's why the student-centered schools now typically arrange the class schedule so that all those who teach in a certain department or course have a free period together. They use that time to work out a master plan. For teachers, "a lot of that ego is gone," says Kim Zupec. "It's not a case of 'These are my lessons and when I close my classroom door, I teach what I want.' Because it's all based on student performance now, you may have to teach things differently than you were, or teach different things." It's not about making teachers into programmed robots, but about making sure they all are working from the same game plan, even if they execute it differently. 

DuFour recalls his days teaching U.S. history at Batavia High School in the 1960s, when he would emphasize the topics that interested him, such as the Intolerable Acts preceding the American Revolution; then he would test students based on what he had taught. In the next classroom over, students may have heard very little about the Intolerable Acts and have taken a test entirely different from his. And they all left the school believing they had learned U.S. history.

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