Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Unpacking Academic Excellence

I get a little skeptical and wary of schools (and those that work within them - including myself sometimes) that espouse "academic excellence" as an organizational value.

I wonder if the "academic excellence" mantra has become the equivalent to the "good job" or "excellent effort" of teacher feedback to students.  Nice words that mean nothing or worse yet, different things to different people.

Don't get me wrong, schools and teachers NEED to be "academically excellent", but what does the ideal look like?

What are the distinguishing features of academically excellent schools or classrooms?  Are the only valid features of "academically excellent" schools those that are common to all to schools?  Can we or should we personalize our understanding of "academically excellent" schools?

For example:

  • When you walk through "academically excellent" schools what are the teachers and students actually doing?  Who's is doing the talking?  Who's is doing the learning?  What are students producing?  Is it a problem if the teacher is doing most of the talking, all the time?  Are the students engaged in relevant work that engages their mind in innovative and creative ways?   Is the work that is expected from students done with a simple "Google" search?  Are we  merely preparing students to score well on a test?
  • I worry that the "academic excellence" mantra, if not unpacked properly, can serve to the narrow the vision of what schools need to be for our diverse group of learners. 
  • Do we confine learning to classroom only?
  • I am the first one to equate our 100% Graduation Rate as a "mark" of academic excellence?  Is that a fair mark for all schools in all circumstances?

What are schools, teachers, parents and students using, as data, to label themselves "academically excellent"?  Are they only using those markers that are easy to measure?

For example:

  • Do we rely on standardized test results to label ourselves as "academically excellent" schools?  There may be some merit to these tests for providing instructional and systemic feedback.  However, when those test are misused to rank schools against each other it only serves to alienate our most vulnerable students and many hard working teaching professionals.     
  • Are schools taking the "long view" when it comes to measuring academic excellence?  There is nothing quite so rewarding as a teacher than when I run into former students engaged in the "real world" as successful, articulate, respectful contributing members of society - from doctors to chefs to teachers to entrepreneurs to parents to religious.   

These are big questions that require organizational and school wide attention and conversations.

Perhaps the time has come for us to intentionally unpack our assumptions about what constitutes "academic excellence" in schools.

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