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March 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 6

On Creating an Environment Where All Students Learn: A Conversation with Al Mamary

    Students in the Johnson City school system have flourished under a program that encourages self-directed learning and active staff participation in policy decisions.

      Students in the Johnson City school system have flourished under a program that encourages self-directed learning and active staff participation in policy decisions.
      The Johnson City school system has had outcome-based education for years. What's been the effect on student achievement?
      Well, let's start with what most people think of first: standardized tests. Now, all of our schools are Chapter 1 schools; we're the lowest socioeconomic school district in this area. And we have a large number of non-English-speaking students, representing 17 different languages. As recently as a year ago, on the revised California Achievement Test, our 8th grade students were at the 12.9 level in mathematics and 11.8 in reading.
      That's remarkable.
      There's much more. New York State gives a very special diploma—the Regents diploma—to students who take specified sequences of courses in math, science, foreign languages, and so on. In the state as a whole, approximately 34 percent of its graduates earn this diploma. In Johnson City, the average is from 48 percent to 78 percent.
      I think the Advanced Placement results are also pretty significant. Again, you wouldn't necessarily expect it in our kind of setting. In 1972, nobody in our district took the AP exams. Now, between 25 and 35 percent of the seniors take at least one AP exam, which shows that they are enrolling in these demanding courses. Last year, for example, 111 out of 189 students took an exam, and 104 of them got grades of 3, 4, or 5.
      Other indicators?
      Our vandalism budget is approximately $200 a year. Our dropout rate has fallen to 3 percent. There's much more. For example, our state exam, the Regents. In math 1, which is mostly algebra, 93 percent of our kids passed. The state average is 73, and the county is 76. Over 80
      You've been talking about “our kids,” but actually you recently retired from Johnson City. Still, you were a leader there for many years.
      Twenty-one years. I went there as assistant superintendent and then was superintendent for 11 years.
      And how would you explain this impressive success story?
      Well, I think success comes from the kind of environment you create. We started by trying to create an environment where everybody was considered in partnership with the operation.
      The Johnson City schools live by three principles. Here's the first one: all staff members will be involved in every major decision. The second idea is that we will always strive for 100 percent agreement, even if we have to go back many times. And third, we have an agreement that everybody will live by the agreements until we change them—and agreements should be changed now and then.
      Back in 1972, I said that a position in this district is not power. Instead, we said knowledge is power, using knowledge is power. We said—and we meant it—that we are coworkers and co-learners and co-doers. And I think that is why the district is where it is today.
      What you're saying is surprising. I would have expected you to talk about your emphasis on student performance and the steps you took to achieve specific outcomes.
      Well, we'll get to that, because that's important, too. But first you have to create the environment—an environment that says people are important, that we're not going to blame one another, that there's no humiliation and coercion.
      Okay, what other factors would explain your success?
      Continuity of administration is a major factor of the success. As you know, John Champlain was the superintendent responsible for starting the entire change in Johnson City. He brought me with him as assistant superintendent of schools for curriculum and instruction. When I retired, Larry Rowe, who had been a teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent in Johnson City, became superintendent.
      Also, there's the board of education. We've had wonderful board members (forgive me for saying “we”; I still think of myself as part of Johnson City), who allow the administrators and teachers to do their job.
      Another factor is how intentional we are about everything we do—intentional about what we want students to learn, about alignment of instruction, about creating standards and holding kids accountable.
      Now we're getting to the techniques of outcome-based education.
      Yes, but none of them makes a difference unless you have the right environment. You've got to have the dedication of the staff. You've got to reach consensus on the mission of the school. Our mission, by the way, has been clear for a long time. It is that all students will learn well.
      At one time, you described what you were doing as mastery learning, right?
      Yes. I remember reading Bloom's first article on Learning for Mastery back in 1968 and being fascinated by what he said. So we started our journey with what I would now call “mastery learning 1.” We broke with the traditional. Instead of kids having to guess what would be on the exam, we began saying very clearly in 1972, “This is what children have to learn; let us intentionally align our instruction with this outcome.” We broke away from the norm-referenced test to the criterion-referenced test.
      And boy, did we make mistakes. But we were doing our best. And we learned from our experience. For example, we tried individualized instruction; that didn't work. In retrospect, I can see that we went through three different phases of mastery learning until we got to outcome-based learning.
      What do you see as the major difference between mastery learning and outcome-based education?
      For us, mastery learning involved instructional alignment. We emphasized correctives for some students while others got enrichment. But then it changed; we grew up a bit. We used better criterion-referenced tests, and we began to get many more students learning—but the emphasis was still on what the teacher did: teaching to the outcomes, teaching to criteria that we had established. We were doing very well—but then we began to see that if we really wanted outcome-based learning, if we wanted students to be self-directed, we had to get them involved in self-assessment.
      That's what I think makes OBE different. For example, in virtually all of our classes, students are given opportunities to demonstrate to the teacher that they understand. The criteria are still being used—but it's the students who are using them.
      We believe in co-assessment. Before students turn in a paper—in elementary or in secondary schools, not in every classroom but in most classrooms—they have to judge whether that paper is their personal best. If it is, they sign it. Parents tell me that, with that simple technique, students are not willing to hand in anything but quality.
      Of course, teachers get involved, too—because it is co-assessment—using the standards of quality that the teachers and students have established together.
      There's a lot of controversy across the country these days about outcome-based education. What does the term mean to you?
      Well, in the past, we'd take action hoping that something good would happen. We would do open education, or flexible scheduling, or quality circles, hoping something good would happen. Outcome-based education turned that whole process around. What it says is, what do you want to happen? What outcomes do you really want to achieve? Start with your outcomes and let your outcomes drive your actions.
      It's a simple idea, really. Know what you're trying to produce, use the best research in the field, and then take action according to the outcomes. But also your outcomes should serve as a screen. When we consider doing something, we always ask, “If we take that action, will it get us what we want?”
      Getting clear about the purposes of education can be difficult. Has Johnson City found a way to state outcomes in a way that is brief enough for people to grasp and still comprehensive enough to cover the whole educational program?
      Yes. Johnson City has three basic outcomes. The first is academics. These are the parts you ought to be grading, nothing else. Under academics, we want students to be able to think within every discipline. By the way, when I think of academics, I don't want anybody to think I'm not talking about areas like art and music. By academics I mean every subject that's taught. We say we want students to think within each of the disciplines: within science, within art, within health.
      But we want two other parts as well. We want our students to understand—and most curriculum, I'm afraid, is not taught for understanding. But we just don't talk about that; we've made an attempt to define what we mean by understanding in each of the disciplines.
      And the third part of academics is that students should be self-directed within each discipline.
      You're saying that your students need to know how knowledge is developed and used in the various disciplines: what questions are asked, how people go about trying to answer the questions, what they look for as evidence, and so on?
      Yes—being able to use the tools of the discipline to carry on an investigation within that discipline.
      The second outcomes are the work and process skills. We want our students to be able to work in groups. We want them to be accountable for their work. We want them to be able to make decisions, to solve problems, to communicate. I don't think they can get or keep a job unless they have those kinds of skills.
      And the third outcomes are what you might call attitudes. We want our students to love learning, to be concerned about one another. Yes, we do teach kids to show concern for one another. We know what we mean by that; we know what we mean by self-esteem; and we teach those things. But mostly, we develop such qualities through the environment. And we measure how well we're doing it with standards and indicators that are very clear. We do measure it—but we don't grade individuals on such outcomes.
      That's an important point. Specifying outcomes like self-esteem and interpersonal relationships has become an issue in some parts of the country. It has not been an issue in Johnson City?
      No. You see, just having outcomes doesn't make you outcome-based. You've got to go two more steps. You can't just say, “We want our students to have good self-esteem,” and not define that. You need to look at the research literature. You need to get your staff involved and say, “Think of people who have good self-esteem; what are their attributes?” And when you make fuzzy terms clear, people say, “That makes sense.” For example, a few years back we met with some of our religious leaders and said, “Here's an example of what we mean by self-esteem: that kids take reasonable risks in learning.” Having a definition like that helps you avoid inappropriate behaviors like having students of the month, or having an assembly where everybody shouts, “I am good, I am good,” even though they are not learning.
      So we define these outcomes clearly and sensibly. And because of that, I've never heard anybody say, “We don't want that for our kids.”
      But there's one more step that's absolutely essential, and that is to make specific provisions for accomplishing the outcomes. For example, suppose we have broad agreement among the teachers, the parents, and the community that we want our students to take reasonable risks in the classroom. What will the teacher be doing? You need standards or indicators. Our teachers came up with lots of standards things they ought to be employing, like using wait time, asking open-ended questions. The teachers said, “If we want kids to take risks, we should not put them down; we should not humiliate them.” If kids are going to take reasonable risks, they won't always get it right the first time, so we will allow them to retest. We'll even be willing to alter their grades when they can show they now understand something better. These are all practices we've worked out with our teachers for what they should be doing and not doing, and we've also worked with our community—because the parents have a role, too.
      You're saying that if you want to list something as an outcome, you should be able to say how you intend to achieve that outcome—and how you're going to measure it. And why did you say that you wouldn't grade some of these outcomes?
      Well, what are you going to do? Give a kid a failing grade for not loving learning? If you have the indicators, your job is to help develop that love of learning. To grade it would be self-defeating.
      Another big issue is the relationship between subject matter and these outcomes. Some would contend that district outcomes should not refer to subject matter but should refer to ultimate purposes of schooling. In that kind of framework, academics become enabling outcomes toward these more life-related outcomes. You're saying that you do it differently?
      No, I'm saying we do it both ways. Say, for example, that you want students to be self-directed learners. Well, that comes directly through the curriculum. Or you want students to show concern for other people. Well, when teachers are teaching a short story or a novel, they may ask, “How do the characters in this story show concern for one another, and why?” So they use the subject matter as the vehicle to get at the broader outcomes.
      But you do say that understanding academics is an outcome for its own sake?
      Yes, I do. I say academics—including thinking, understanding, and self-directed learning in each of the disciplines—is an outcome in itself.
      Your explanation of outcome-based education seems so reasonable that it's hard to see why people would object to it. But we know that in many parts of the country they do. Educators are beginning to say that they won't use the term outcomes any more. You know about all the conflicts. Why is this happening if outcome-based education is such a sound idea?
      Well, I don't know all the reasons, but I can say that outcomes is a perfectly good word. How in the world could we operate without knowing what outcomes we want? I wouldn't shy away from the word.
      But I do think that a lot of schools went too far too fast; and I think it's a mistake for a state to mandate outcomes. I believe very strongly that people in each community should develop their own outcomes, because then people will know what the outcomes mean—and I think most people will then understand why education needs to be outcome-based.

      Education writer and consultant Ron Brandt is the former editor of Educational Leadership and other publications of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

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