Speaking at the annual Techspo conference in Atlantic City, Marc Prensky, of Digital Native/Digital Immigrant fame, spoke of the challenges members of the Pre-internet Generation have when teaching students of the Internet Generation. Members of the Internet Generation, which includes all of our current New Providence students, have never known life without the internet. In his keynote address, Mr. Prensky, an educator and futurist, spoke of the necessity of teaching not only to the past, but for a future in which information is instantly available and collaboration is global. His essential questions asked his mostly pre-internet audience of educators and technology specialists to think about what we teach, how we teach, and, perhaps most importantly, how students will live in their newly networked world. He identifies the most important 21st Century learning skills for students as action, accomplishment, and relationships, cautioning us, when planning instruction, not to underestimate what our students can already do. Mr. Prensky’s Friday address closely aligned with the Thursday keynote address given by technology education guru Alan November. Mr. November, a former educator, asked the audience to consider the importance of teaching information rather than teaching technology, helping students learn to access the right information at the right time, and how to design assignments that ask students to provide information that cannot be Googled. Both keynote speeches were inspiring and energizing, and, for the New Providence administrators and technology staff, satisfying as well. Many of the suggestions included in both Marc Prensky and Alan November’s speeches are what we already do in our classrooms. Each year in New Providence we have charted new courses, moved beyond compliance, and recognized the importance of teaching for the future.
But this year is different. This is a difficult year. This is not a year of vision, but rather a year of compliance. This is the year that all of the reform strategies that were contingent on receiving Race to the Top funds are coming together. This is the year that we are completely immersed in Common Core State Standards, PARCC, new technology requirements, an enhanced data system, a new teacher evaluation system with multiple observations, Student Growth Objectives, Student Growth Percentiles, revised Professional Development requirements, the new District Evaluation Advisory Committee and School Improvement Panels, and the new NJ Performance Reports. Implementing any one of these new programs/committees would be a multi-year undertaking by any district, but the quantity and rapid pace of implementation has made this entire process especially difficult and time consuming. And the reality is, as hard as we try, the time spent on compliance to NJDOE supplants the time we are used to spending on collaboration, careful planning, and implementation of meaningful initiatives, curriculum, and strategies.
In New Providence, we have always prided ourselves on being ahead of the curve. Over the past years we have researched, evaluated, and implemented emerging practices. Ours has always been a thoughtful collaboration of administrators and teachers that has produced an educational program that is challenging, meets state standards and mandates, and looks to the future. Even before the Common Core existed, New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards were always at the heart of our curriculum, and, based on our discussions and assessments of student needs, we branched out into instruction, looking into the practices that encouraged effective differentiation. We were excited by the work of the Partnership for 21st Century skills as we came to recognize that our students were indeed a generation of different learners. Marc Prensky’s work on the differences between Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants made a significant impact on us. Prensky’s work, along with our recognition of our students’ easy fluency with technology and social media as well as the changing workplace environment, made it clear that we needed to prepare students for the new future. By this time, we were already into the early stages of our Phase Initiative, but now we went further. Following the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, we made sure that that our existing standards based instruction was now integrated with the skills identified as necessary for career success: Communication, technology, learning how to access information, metacognition, problem solving, perseverance, collaboration, and problem solving. We supported our teachers with professional development, outfitted our classrooms with technology, began a 1:1 initiative at the High School, and placed carts of iPads in the Middle School. Our hard work paid off: Our students were successful and our district curriculum, instruction, and technology were regularly recognized by other districts and by NJDOE.
But then things began to change. The Education Reform movement began to take shape. We were hearing that student achievement in the United States was significantly behind student achievement in other countries, and that we were not preparing students for college and careers. Across the country we saw the trend towards teacher evaluation tied to scores on standardized tests, charter schools replacing public schools, and experiments with merit pay. The Common Core State Standards were developed, and as Race to the Top became a reality, CCSS and testing consortiums became a real factor in our education world. College and Career Readiness was now defined as the number of students taking the PSAT, Algebra I in Middle School, and the number of students chronically absent. In New Jersey, as with many other states, the scope of the changes as well as the speed of the implementation timeline was overwhelming. Our administrators and educators consider ourselves fortunate that we had the years to shape and implement our district guidelines for curriculum and instruction, our explorations into technology, and to develop our own teacher evaluation system. That work is now our foundation as we move towards implementation of the new requirements. Everyone in our district: Administrators, Department Heads, teachers, and technology staff, has a role to play as we work through Common Core, prepare for PARCC, and implement new evaluation requirements, student achievement requirements, professional development requirements, and expanded data systems.
Are there any good things in the New Jersey school reform mandates? Absolutely. While the Common Core State Standards are being vilified across the country, there is still much to like. CCSS in both Language Arts and Mathematics are rigorous, ask students to make decisions based on textual evidence, read a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction texts, and extend informational literacy to other content areas. The math standards are clear, concise, and are grounded in skills placed in context. Our expanded teacher evaluation instruments have worked especially well; we still evaluate our curriculum and instruction based on our own instructional guidelines, and expectations help teacher by being more defined. Other reform elements we are not yet sure of: Right now we are immersed in preparing for the PARCC field test, both on the technology and administration sides, with no clear idea of the field test’s success. Within the next few months we will be completing the first year of teacher evaluation, and right now are taking our first look at Student Growth Percentiles which will eventually be tied to teacher evaluation. In spite of the difficulties and new challenges, though, one thing is clear. There is still exceptional work being done in the New Providence School District. Within the pages of this report, you will read about the progress we have made in student achievement, plans for new programs, including a new on-line program in the high school, new curriculum, and exciting developments in the way students are interacting with technology. And yes, we still are excited about teaching for the future and will continue to prepare our students for the world in which they will live their lives.