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Embracing change: School district adjusts to state mandates

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news Two Harbors, 55616
Two Harbors Minnesota 109 Waterfront Dr. 55616

Lake Superior School District is looking to build the world’s best workforce, one student and one teacher at a time.

Under new state standards and mandates, the district is putting more focus on careers and college for students and implementing teacher evaluations that are tied to student performance. The plan, devised under the World’s Best Workforce umbrella guidelines handed out by the state education department, also includes dropping the “grad test” that students previously had to pass to graduate.

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“That one number did not guarantee that they were college ready,” Superintendent Bill Crandall said of the grad test.

Instead, the district will focus on keeping all students on grade level throughout their school careers and helping them planning for the future as early as seventh grade.

A focus on careers

LSSD already had many of the World’s Best Workforce pieces in place. All-day kindergarten is offered to all families free of charge and third-grade literacy has long been a district goal. The biggest changes will come in the high school, where students will develop individualized learning plans to guide them through the last four years of their secondary education.

“It gets them thinking and I think that’s the main thing,” teacher Julie Benson said.

In eighth grade, students will take career inventory tests to determine which careers best match their interests and abilities. In ninth grade, they’ll make outlines for high school, including a list of classes they’ll need to reach their post-graduation goals.

In tenth or eleventh grade, students will take the Accuplacer test for the first time. The assessment measures whether students are ready for college-level math and English. If not, it identifies skills in need of improvement.

Crandall said the district is still ironing out how it will address deficits in students’ learning. Currently it is experimenting with software that creates individual remedial lessons to supplement classroom instruction for students who fall behind.

“Those are still getting designed … but basically, it would be an intervention,” he said.

All students are expected to be college-ready by graduation as defined by the Accuplacer test, whether they plan to attend a four-year school or not. Crandall said that taking the test earlier in their school careers will allow some students more time to catch up if they’re falling behind, and give more advanced students a chance to map a more challenging course.

“In the high school world, we get kids ready for college. If we know ahead of time that they’re not college ready … we can get them there,” he said.

In an eleventh grade career readiness class, students will also take the ASVAB, a U.S. Armed Forces-administered aptitude test. It’s a comprehensive interest and abilities test that will give students a better idea of possible career options.

Teacher evaluation implemented

The students won’t be the only ones with individualized plans. Starting next fall, teachers will sit down with administrators and set three-year professional goals and action plans. They will be evaluated at least once a year and more thoroughly at the end of the three-year period, with a heavy focus on peer review.

Evaluations will be based on the achievement of professional goals, student performance and classroom assessments by administrators. The question of how the district will measure student performance has not yet been answered.

“We’re having discussions … to determine what would be the best indicator of student performance and growth,” Benson said. She is also the teachers’ union president.

Teachers of subjects such as math and reading can use standardized tests to determine student progress. Measuring student performance and engagement in subjects not covered on standardized tests, like the social science courses Benson teaches, is a little more difficult.

A handful of districts across the state are guinea pigs for the state’s version of teacher evaluation. The state legislature passed a bill in 2011 instituting standard evaluations, but also gave districts the option to accept the state plan or tailor their evaluations like LSSD is doing.

“We took the state model and now we’re making that ours,” Crandall said. “We said, ‘What does good teaching and effective teaching look like in LSSD?’”

New Minnesota teachers have always been under close scrutiny, with three evaluations per year for their first three years in the classroom. However, evaluations for experienced teachers varied widely. Benson said she was only formally evaluated by an administrator twice in 16 years of tenured teaching.

Now, veteran teachers will be observed more often and can expect unscheduled walk-throughs by administrators during class time. Benson said that previously, some administrators didn’t know what to look for when observing classes – conducting teacher evaluations wasn’t a part of their training. Crandall said that principals across the district have received training in how to evaluate teachers so their feedback will be more valuable.

If a teacher’s performance is determined to be falling short, he or she will be given an opportunity to make a plan for improvement with input from a union representative and administrators. If performance doesn’t improve, punitive action may be taken. Though teachers can be fired if they don’t perform well, Crandall said that’s not the aim.

“The intent … isn’t to get rid of teachers. It’s to help teachers grow,” Crandall said.

Benson said she is thankful that teachers get to be a part of mapping out the standards to which they will be held. She said that most teachers want to do a good job, and setting long-term goals will help them stay focused on a bigger picture and continual improvement.

“It doesn’t hurt anybody in any profession to have goals,” she said. “We’re trying. We’re working really, really hard.”

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