I was recently interviewed by a journalist for a newspaper on the plains of Texas. With his permission, I am sharing with you the exchange we had...
Reporter: Earlier in our discussion, you made a statement, something to this effect, "Public education is not in a good place and has become a slave to high performance testing." Please explain the statement and how does the statement apply to Guthrie's school.
Coulter: I am convinced that public education has lost its way. We have allowed ourselves to become slaves to policies, and a subsequent accountability system, that assumes that learning can be reduced to a set of test scores, mostly centered around four academic disciplines - math, science, English, and social studies. There are many social and political variables that have brought us to this current dysfunctional reality, but the only way of reversing it is for local communities to take proactive steps to "take back" the responsibility for educating our own children.
Reporter: When you outlined an alternative method for teaching strategies, you developed four "Conversation Drivers" for parents, teachers, and school trustees, what were the general responses to each?
Coulter: The questions you refer to were the ones I used in starting a dialogue with our school's stakeholders in Guthrie, Texas, about what we really wanted for our children. Those questions were framed in direct accordance to my belief that we (local communities) must simply "take back" the responsibility for educating our own children. Once (and if) we believe that, then we must have substantive conversations about what that "taking back" should look/smell/feel/sound like. In effect, if we decide that we are the ones to prescribe what our children learn (not folks in Austin, Texas, or Washington, DC), then we have to make some real decisions about what that local prescription for education should be. Thus, the questions...
(1) What are our highest aspirations for our students? I started each (of about 20 stakeholder meetings over an 18 month stretch) with this question. The response from all groups was something akin to a collective sigh of relief. It was like our community was actually relieved that someone wanted to hear what THEY wanted for their children, not what the state or federal government wanted. This question yielded a whole host of noble and worthy aspirations, most of which are distilled in the response to the next question.
(2) With those aspirations in mind, what do we think a Guthrie graduate should look like? Once we had dialogue about what our highest aspirations for our children were, then we began trying to derive some definite goals which would guide our educational effort at Guthrie. This took shape in what eventually we named our Guthrie Graduate Profile (GGP). It is a framework of knowledge, skills, ways of thinking, and ways of behaving that we deem most likely to prepare our children for full lives of happiness, success, and productivity.
(3) How well are we "aligned" to ensure that our students succeed? This question was/is used mostly with professional educators and serves as a lens by which we critically evaluate how we use every minute of every school day. Are we doing things that directly improve student prowess along the five dimensions of the GGP, or are we allowing ourselves to get distracted by the expectations of "others" from places far away from us. Response to this question has been good and fruitful. It seems that our educators, in particular, are very open to re-defining education along holistic lines, rather than reducing it to a series of drill and kill exercises meant to improve test scores, not grow strong citizens.
(4) How can/will we know if we're fulfilling our dreams for our students? This is the toughest of the questions because it turns our attention to assessment. How will we know we are being successful. What, for instance, does quality education toward creating Compassionate and Responsible Citizens (one of our GGP dimensions) look like at Grade 1, Grade 4, Grade 8, Grade 11? What metrics should we be using to assess our success in causing these kinds of learning to gain traction with our students and to push them toward prowess in those areas?
Reporter: Are you throwing state testing out the window, and if you are, is this taking a risk in any way?
Coulter: Nope, we can't. The state and federal government exercise jurisdiction over us, both by law and by purse string. We still teach academic disciplines, and should. We still take the prescribed tests, and should. We do not, however, have to be held hostage every minute of every day by those tests. We do not and will not define our children, our teachers, our community by such a narrow and superficial and flawed approach to education. In effect, we have made the conscious decision to recalibrate our use of time to focus more on our chosen educational goals and less on those of the state and federal governments. Not at all surprisingly (to me, anyway), our students do just as well on the high stakes tests as they ever have.
Reporter: You have developed goals and an outline to determine what a Guthrie graduate should look. I believe you call this the "Guthrie CSD Graduate Profile." Discuss this.
Coulter: Through response to your previous questions I have outlined the history and development of the GGP. Here are its five dimensions that were distilled from those many conversation over years of time (and continue to be refined/revised annually):
Guthrie Graduate Profile (we desire and deliberately and daily work toward developing our children along these five dimensions):
> Learners/Problems Solvers/Critical Thinkers
> Effective Communicators
> Persons of Strong Character
> Productive and Valuable Team Members
> Compassionate and Responsible Citizens
(Who wouldn't want their children to possess such assets? What better set of standards by which to conduct school?)
Reporter: Would this plan work for every school district in Texas, including both the rural and metropolitan districts as well as the poor and more affluent districts?
Coulter: I have worked in schools of all sizes - tiny, mid-size, and huge. The children in each are remarkably the same. The parents and communities of each, when asked, describe remarkably similar aspirations for their children and their children's future. The Guthrie CSD school board has given their full support to this effort, and I believe most other school boards in the state would do the same. Yes, this is an approach for education that can work in every community. I would argue that it SHOULD be the approach in every community.
Reporter: You seem to be more than a fan of technology. How is used by the faculty in their different subject areas and what is the student response? Is it truly better than traditional teaching methods?
Coulter: Technology is nothing more than a tool, just like a hammer, a pair of glasses, a windmill, or a car. Many kinds of tools can and have been used for learning: chalk, pencils, pens, markers, paper, books, and now, the internet. In the hands of a skillful teacher learning always occurs, no matter what tools she has at her disposal. In the hands of an ineffective teacher NO tool will offset that deficit. The availability of technology simply allows teachers and students to work and learn more efficiently and with fewer boundaries. Just a guess, but I suspect very few of us would, by choice, return to the days of traveling everywhere by horseback or horse-drawn wagon...
Reporter: Returning to the mandated state testing and end-of-course testing. Do Guthrie students perform just as well or better on these? And since it appears that these tests do not hold the same significance to measure student success in your district, are students adversely affected when they apply to different colleges, universities, and other schools of higher learning?
Coulter: The short answer is that our students do very well on the high-stakes test, and always have. We have simply chosen MORE for our students by taking this approach to education. Our teachers continue to teach the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, which is the state's articulation of the kinds of knowledge and skills students should be learning in the academic disciplines. By expanding our educational effort to the development of the whole child (through the GGP), we are viewing education as simply one of many elements in an integrated and holistic system. I don't have data to prove it, but I suspect our children are better prepared, holistically speaking, because of our approach to development of the whole being (not just the brain). Actually, it makes rather good sense, because most of us learn when we move into adulthood that life, success, respect, and happiness are not measured on multiple-choice tests. They are all the results of our prowess along social, physical emotional, cognitive, and spiritual wellness and attributes (much like those defined in our GGP).
Reporter: Dr. Coulter, do you have any other comments you would like to make?
Coulter: Thanks for making me think, and thanks for giving me the opportunity to share some of the great things that are going on for children in the Guthrie Common School District.