Sadusky: Student learning ‘flatlines’ in middle school

 

What happens in middle school can lead to gaps student learning that causes students to struggle in higher grades, Interim State Superintendent Bernard Sadusky recently told members of the GBC’s Education and Workforce Committee.

Dr. Sadusky gave an impassioned talk to the committee on April 5 about a plan he has been working on since taking over on July 1, 2011, an informal compilation of focus areas he said have been time-consuming and difficult to implement but are imperative to the improvement of the state’s schools.

Through his own evaluations, Sadusky has seen wide gaps in student learning and general underperformance that he says makes Maryland less competitive in the global marketplace. He sees students having trouble learning because institutions are slow to adapting to contemporary and innovative learning skills. Another area targeted for progress is teacher training.

Sadusky noticed a pattern of learning for students that flatlines in middle schools, leaving students underperforming and struggling in higher grades. His main goal in thwarting this trend is increasing accountability and assessment procedures. To accomplish that, he outlined four focus areas: teacher evaluations, chronically-underperforming schools, the Breakthrough Center and longitudinal data systems.

Sadusky also stressed a modern-day education system will increasingly need teachers that are educated in the specific disciplines that they teach. Many teachers enter the school system with an elementary degree that leaves them ill-prepared to teach middle and high school, Sadusky said.

Retraining teachers, requiring more classes in college for teachers planning on being employed for higher grade levels and offering teaching masters degrees in content areas are all ideas Sadusky suggests for making sure teachers are more prepared for work in the classroom.

Sadusky said, while observing a classroom, he witnessed students learning digitally, hands-on and in separate groups. Some teachers are not used to teaching in this fashion, but with the digital age fully upon us, the school systems that will thrive are those that best integrate these new learning styles.

Sadusky advocates for better ways to track student progress. Pilot programs he is conducting include SLOs (student learning outcomes); good-old-fashioned dialogue with teachers; establishing expected end points; portfolios, electronic and non-electronic, as well as pre- and post-testing where applicable.

He also said conducting longitudinal data systems to measure student performance in relation to teacher performance is key to measuring success. Sadusky said too often measuring student performance doesn’t accurately represent a teacher’s abilities. Teacher and principal evaluations as well as measuring teacher progress will more accurately portray how students do over time. Maryland schools are in the process of establishing teacher evaluation programs linked to student growth, according to Sadusky.

The research-based model of co-operating school districts in the Breakthrough Center has been another initiative Sadusky felt accelerated schools to become equipped to teach students properly, but his concern is sustainability.

The program looks at the lowest 5 percent of underperforming schools in the state. How are they performing? Do they have effective, highly-qualified teachers? Will they be able to sustain these efforts once the program is complete?

The state works with selected schools to retrain teachers and work weekly with faculty. Whether schools need to close for a time or just need restructuring, the goal is to reward schools for good behavior and reduce the achievement gap in state by half in six years.

The ultimate goal for all the initiatives is to make Maryland students globally competitive, and to do that at times there are other incentives that can be put in place to accelerate improvement. Sadusky responded to a topic arising about alternative payment scales. Montgomery County currently has a career ladder system, where payment (salary) is matched to skills and knowledge.

Research shows teachers are more competent in this scenario because it’s directly linked to student performance. However, performance compensation costs more for the state, which is why it is not more widely implemented. Sadusky suggested a university conduct research on this topic and on the structure of schools themselves, on the delivery model and the management model. Are we currently using resources most effectively?

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