| Volume 66 | Number 2
EL Study Guide
Most educators would agree that excellence is an admirable goal for all schools and all students. But what does excellence really entail? The October 2008 issue of Educational Leadership explores the meaning of excellence and discusses the different ways teachers, schools, and even whole nations are pursuing excellence.
The “Why” Question
In “The Moral North Star” (p. 8) William Damon says that students will pursue excellence more ardently if they understand why the knowledge schools require is important.
- How do you respond when students ask, “Why do we have to do this?” How might your responses to this question instill in students a sense of purpose?
- Think of a lesson or unit you're currently teaching or preparing to teach. Ask yourself why this unit is relevant to students' present and future lives. If it isn't relevant, how could you adjust your objectives to make it more relevant? (See the suggestions on p. 12 of the October EL for ideas.)
- Damon emphasizes the need to encourage students to pursue moral excellence, as well as academic excellence. Do you agree that teachers have a role in fostering moral excellence in students? Which moral and ethical principles should teachers attempt to instill in students? How can teachers address ethical and moral issues in a pluralistic society?
What Is Excellence?
Before we can pursue excellence, we need to agree on what excellence looks like. Several authors in the October EL offer ideas on what constitutes excellence—and how some schools fall short.
- In his article “Excellence for All” (p. 14), Robert J. Sternberg describes four models of excellence that appear in schools today. Some schools focus on getting their low-performing students to meet minimum competency standards. Some focus on their high achievers. Others define excellence as intellectual conformity, and still others look to average test scores for their definition of excellence. How does each model fall short? What can your school do to avoid falling into one of these traps?
- Sternberg challenges schools to help students grow in both the traditional three Rs (reading, writing, and 'rithmetic) and what he calls the “other three Rs”: reasoning, resilience, and responsibility. Tony Wagner, in “Rigor Redfined” (p. 20) lists seven survival skills that students need to succeed in the future. These include critical thinking, collaboration, adaptability, initiative, communication skills, ability to access information, and imagination. What skills do you think an excellent education provides for students? How are you helping students build these skills?
Pursuing Excellent Teaching
Ideally, teacher evaluations should help teachers improve their skills and raise student achievement. However, in “Fixing Teacher Evaluation” (p. 32), Thomas Toch reports that typical evaluations are too shallow and don't do much to enhance instruction or achievement.
- For teachers: Think about a recent experience you've had being evaluated. What did you learn from the experience? How did it change your instruction? What could have made it more helpful?
- For administrators: How do you currently evaluate teachers? How do teachers respond to your evaluations? What changes could you make so that evaluations become an opportunity for even greater improvement?
- Toch describes several examples of teacher evaluation programs that he believes have the potential to improve instruction. These model programs have explicit standards, use multiple measures, and incorporate multiple evaluations by multiple evaluators. How might your school apply some of these ideas to your evaluation program? What effect do you believe incorporating such an approach would have on instruction in your school?
- Toch says that “the single-salary schedule may be the most stubborn barrier to better teacher evaluations.” Do you agree with this notion? What do you believe is the fairest and most effective way to determine teachers' salaries? (See the October 2008 online article “When Merit Pay Is Worth Pursuing” by Joshua H. Barnett and Gary W. Ritter for more on alternative salary schedules.)
Making the Grade
In “Seven Reasons for Standards-Based Grading” (p. 70), high school math teacher Patricia L. Scriffiny describes how adopting a standards-based grading system has transformed her teaching.
- What kind of grading system do you currently use? What do students' final grades in your class indicate about what they have learned? How could you make your grade reports more helpful to students and parents?
- What is your experience with standards-based grading? What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of such an approach? What effect do you believe standards-based grading would have on instruction in your classroom? Or, if you're already using this system, how has it changed your teaching?
- Since adopting standards-based grading, Scriffiny has stopped grading homework. She was surprised to find that homework completion rates have remained steady. What is your philosophy on grading homework? What do you do to motivate students to complete homework assignments?
Copyright © 2008 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development