Monday, March 27, 2006

Pressure to succeed

I couldn't help but be struck by the latest Asian editions of Time and Newsweek magazines, which both tackled stories on education. Time's Liam Fitzpatrick asks "Are We Pushing Our Kids Too Hard?" while over at Newsweek, Emily Flynn Vencat wonders, "Is Rampant Cheating Undermining Our Schools?"

Anyone else see a connection?

Back at the high school where I taught, one of the toughest issues was overscheduling and pressure. Kids literally would take classes every period of the day (we had nine 40-minute class periods) -- skipping lunch and avoiding study periods if at all possible. Their goal? To take as many high-level and AP classes as possible so that they'd shine above other students who took "just a regular load" of classes. A recipe for disaster? Definitely! (That's why, as part of its strategic planning process, the school is implementing nine new action plans to "encourage a healthy, balanced life.")

Obviously, pressure to be an "uber-student" can push kids over the ethical edge into cheating. The numbers are shocking, according to Newsweek:
"In a huge study of 50,000 college and 18,000 high-school students in the United States by Duke University's Center for Academic Integrity, more than 70 percent admitted to having cheated. That's up from about 56 percent in 1993 and just 26 percent in 1963. "
Are over-scheduling and cheating big problems at JIS? My gut tells me no. The students I know seem pretty even-keeled about school. JIS does a great job of supporting activities outside of school like sports and clubs, and its increasing emphasis on social service helps kids see that there's life outside the priviledged walls of academia.

But for schools (and parents!) it's always wise to be aware of the issues -- and of the pressures that our kids face. Tonight I'm going to ask my middle-schooler how she's doing in school, and I'm going to just sit back and listen. (That's hard to do! I'm usually so full of "good advice"!)

Hope your break is going well....

Friday, March 24, 2006

A well-deserved break

Hope everyone in the JIS family has a great semester break! Looking forward to seeing everyone back in April, when we'll have just over two months left of school. Time flies!

Here's something to think about while you're relaxing or exploring -- and don't worry! This isn't one of those questions that hurts your brain. Actually, it's interesting when you really just let your mind go:

What are the four things you want your children to be able to do when they graduate from high school? Think big. What kind of real-world things must they be able to do when they leave 12th grade?

Robert and I have had many good arguments (errr, I mean "vigorous debates") on this question. How hard it is to narrow down the list to the really critical things! But it's the kind of thinking that's happening right now in great schools around the world. So what do you think?

See you in April!

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Making the grade

Report card. Just those words probably conjure up a myriad of feelings (physical and emotional!) in your household. I still get that throw-up feeling when I reminisce about grades....bleech. Each of us bears the imprint -- and perhaps scars -- of our own personal experience as a student who at least twice each school year received the envelope that would validate hard work and effort, reveal to all academic shortcomings, or perhaps even crush the spirit.

Opening that envelope as a parent is something different altogether. Tomorrow (report-card day at JIS), we carry the weight not only of our own past experiences with grades, but the hopes, expectations, and perceptions of our children. Sometimes it helps to just sit back and take a deep breath -- and give your kids a big hug! Grades are an important measurement tool, but they don't define our children! I think back to a boy at my high school who failed pretty much every class, but went on to be a big-time producer in Hollywood.... I'm sure his parents would have preferred good grades to Fs, but in the end, he turned out great.

If the news at your house tomorrow isn't good, there are resources. Check out the (very unfortunately named) Mom Central website and its common sense article on "Handling the Problematic Report Card." It's a great starting point. If you don't mind wading through the ads, has a good page on the disasterous report card -- including tips for working with your child's teachers. And "Responding to the Bad Report Card" on offers up some logical pointers when you need to confront this difficult situation.

At the end of the day, I try to remember the wise-beyond-his-years words of one of my own high school students: "Grades ain't nothin' but a number, baby...."

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Assessing learning with standardized tests

I don't know about you, but I'm finished talking about governance. At this point, I'd support the "rock-paper-scissors" method of governance if I thought it produced a good result! It's all about keepin' it real.... (oh geez -- if my daughter ever reads that I've committed those words to cyber-paper, she'll keel over with embarrassment! It's fun to be a parent sometimes!)

So now back to the heart of the matter -- education. A major question facing schools around the world today is, "How do we assess how well our students are doing?" It's a fair question, and the answers are important not only to parents and students, but also to the schools themselves as they strive to improve the quality of their educational programs.

While cruising the internet last week, you may have seen this article on CNN's education page about testing in the United States. It's an interesting read on the difficulties parents face making sense of test reports that too often seem non-sensical.....

If you have students at JIS in grades 3, 5, 7, or 10, you also may have received a packet of information and results for the International Schools Assessment (ISA). If you'd like to learn more about the test and the company that administers it (ACER, or the Australian Council for Educational Research), mosey over to its website at

When Robert and I lived in Jakarta during the late '90s, Sofia went to school at the Pattimura campus. Each year, JIS held a big presentation in the campus auditorium to discuss the results of the standardized tests (I think at the time they were the Iowa tests). The ensuing conversation was usually lively, but there was a real sense in the community that we were working as a team to improve the education for all children. We celebrated areas of strength in the school's program, and we talked about areas that could be improved.

I'm hopeful JIS will do similar presentations on the ISA results this year. It would be a great way to reach out to a group who's sincerely supportive of the school -- the parents.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Why council members and their votes matter

Yesterday's blog entry spurred an interesting response/question in the comment section:

"I'm not sure how holding individual members accountable for their positions on specific issues after a vote is taken would benefit the school or its owners. So, given that [that's] the current practice, can you explain how this would benefit the school and community?"

I guess three words sum up my views: accountability, and informed voters.

Many organizations and countries elect leaders only infrequently -- and sometimes those leaders won't ever seek re-election. But that doesn't relieve them of the responsibility to put their money where their proverbial mouths are. People whose lives may be affected by policy decisions have, in my view, a natural interest in knowing how their leaders think.

But better than my personal views, maybe it's helpful to consider what happens when communities don't pay attention to their school boards and their past votes. Click here to read about Pennsylvania's Upper St. Clair school board's decision last month to cancel the district's International Baccalaureate (IB) program -- against the wishes of many in the community....and against good, common sense. Then, read community letters, most expressing dismay -- and often the opinion that informed, educated voters who had done their due-diligence on board candidates could have avoided the fiasco. Interestingly, this is a school board that apparently takes votes without asking its members to put their names on the line.... (Have a look at the meeting minutes from that fateful day.)

Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but at the end of the day, I think that anyone in a position of power who makes important decisions about educational policy should feel confident enough in his or her position to put a name on it. If I'm wrong in council's view, I can live with that. I'll just keep showing up at the monthly meetings and watching the proceedings with my own eyes.

Hope all's well with everyone. And on a totally unrelated note, the joint PEL/PIE production of The Wizard of Oz was fantastic! The families of the cast and crew -- and the JIS community as a whole -- should be so proud!

Monday, March 20, 2006

Governing those who govern: Part Duo / A response

Thanks to William Reed Rising, the first person to comment non-anonymously this blog! Woo-hoo! If you haven't read Bill's comment, please click on the "comment" button at the bottom of the March 17th blog.

Bill raises many of the issues that came up at last week's JIS school council meeting -- and issues that I've heard informally around the campuses as well. They definitely merit further discussion, so here goes nothing! (Since Bill's response was thoughtful and long, I'll take it point by point, with Bill's comments in green, just to make it clearer. Get out your eye-toothpicks!)

"Regarding the suggestion to post agenda items for all sessions..., I was under the impression agendas for regular sessions were being posted on school bulletin boards...."

Yes, it's possible that council posts agendas on school bulletin boards, but I imagine they're not the handiest source of information for working parents (my husband, for example, rarely hangs around at school, and when he does, it's in the gyms -- not near bulletin boards). If it's too inconvenient for council to post its meeting agendas on the internet, then I can run over to the school and find out -- and then post the agenda on this website. But that doesn't seem like the best way to do it....

"As for closed session agendas, by definition (and per the Policy Governance Manual) I believe these are sensitive issues requiring confidentiality and as such neither the agenda nor minutes would be posted. If they were, then there would be no distinction between regular and closed sessions."

Well, there we disagree. The definition of "closed session agendas" in many school districts isn't at all as restrictive as the one you describe, so therefore, there isn't a universally accepted definition. And the Policy Governance Manual, itself, is silent on the issue open vs. closed meeting agendas. (Again, for those who haven't downloaded the Policy Governance Manual, you'll find it on the JIS ParentNet in the Council section.) The PGM does say, however, that "closed meetings will be held to discuss sensitive matters not in the interest of the individuals concerned or of the School as a whole" (PGM, policy 4.3.h.3).

I'd argue that a pilot project of special services for a specific segment of the school population is in the interest of the individuals concerned and the school as a whole. If you don't think so, ask the parent of a child who has a "shadow teacher" in his or her class! Any change in the school program affects students -- and therefore should be discussed in open session. There are ways to protect the confidentiality of specific students and have a debate. (And for the record, I'm 100-percent supportive of the Level II support services program. It's good not just for the kids receiving the special services, but for all the students in the classroom. I've taught with shadow teachers in the class -- it's win-win for everyone.)

And lastly, the distinction between open and closed board meetings doesn't exist because of the agenda. These two meetings styles are different because of how they're held: in public or not.

"In my view, posting a closed session agenda would initiate discussions of sensitive issues which are not intended for open discussion...and likely would fuel uninformed speculation about those issues. I believe such speculation would be a major distraction for the community, and I don't think it would benefit anyone."

This is actually a scary proposition, especially if the issues under discussion in a closed session are about educational policy. Educational policy affects ALL students at JIS. We need to find ways to have sensitive discussions without compromising confidentiality. If we assume good intentions on the part of the community (and since the goal of everyone is to make sure children are getting the best possible education, that's probably a good assumption), then we should assume a constructive, rather than destructive discussion.

Of course, that assumes that community has the information necessary to be informed participants in the discussion. Under the current scenario, that's not the case. People know something's being talked about (after all, the Pilot Program already had been the subject of two public sessions -- one at PEL and another at PIE). But the community doesn't understand why it's so sensitive or why council can't discuss it while respecting confidentially. It just looks suspicious.
Debate makes people smarter, and while you'll never get the community to agree 100 percent, you can at least explain your positions and why they make sense.

"I'd be curious to know why the issue of closed sessions and what is discussed is of such interest. Are there specific subjects that you believe are not being discussed in regular session...that should be?"

It's a big issue because we send our children to JIS for seven hours each day. We'd like to know the educational issues being discussed and decided on in council. You're talking about our children. That's it, pure and simple. In terms of whether there are specific subjects hidden away in closed session that should see the light of open session, I have no idea. To quote that famous anonymous philosopher: You don't know what you don't know.

Your very question points to the answer. Public agendas create trust. Trust is necessary for a collaborative relationship. Secret agenda items turn a climate sour and distrusting.

"The suggestion of having individual votes recorded and made public is not consistent with the Carver model of Council "speaking with one voice."

I think the Carver model's call for "one voice" has been massively misinterpreted by council. Carver says, "If a board seriously intends to speak with only one voice, it must declare that the staff can safely ignore advice and instructions from individual trustees, that only the explicit instructions of the board must be heeded." (Click here for the full article by John Carver.) In other words, once council makes a decision, an individual council member can't try to undermine that decision. The headmaster and his/her staff must be able to trust that decisions will stand as council has voted.

But Carver goes on to clarify the "one voice" stipulation: "Commitment to the authoritative unity of the board in no way compromises board members' right to speak their minds. Vigorous disagreement among trustees does not damage governance....In short, trustees who disagree with the vote may continue to say so, but may not influence organizational direction."

Regardless of the governance model, common sense should rule. Revealing the opinions and votes of individual council members helps educate the people who elected them -- and who will be asked, perhaps, to elect them again next year or the year after.

"...Sunshine Laws are not relevant because JIS is not a public institution....While I'm sure there may be some useful processes that can be gleaned from the way school boards function in the USA, they are not the same as what we have here."

I've heard this a few times: the "this is not America" argument for why JIS shouldn't be as transparent as possible.
I fully understand that JIS isn't an American school. It doesn't have to follow the laws of the United States. But I think parents have a reasonable expectation that an international school, founded by the embassies of three democratic countries, would at least govern itself in a manner that reflects the values of those three countries. Secret agenda items, anonymous votes, and closed meetings for issues that should be addressed in public ... these types of things don't fit in with democratic values. I'm just saying, " let's look at the current governance process and see if it's the best it could be, given all the goals it's trying to achieve."

Oh my gosh...that hurt. If you're still reading, kudos! You officially qualify as an education wonk! If you think this discussion is something that could take place in a bigger way, please suggest it in the comment section (or to a member of council, whose names and email addresses are available on the JIS ParentNet website).

Friday, March 17, 2006

Governing those who govern: Part Duo

If you've watched any amount of TV or movies, you've probably heard the phrase, "Beware the Ides of March." It's a quote from William Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar. Usually this is the only line students remember after they close the book. But what sounds like a vague warning of imminent danger popped into my head again this week.

Here's why: this month's JIS school council meeting fell on March 15th -- the Ides of March according to the Roman calendar. OK, you're saying, thanks for the history lesson. But so what?

A little background: Around 44 B.C., Caesar named himself the lifetime dictator of Rome. The only problem: before his bold move, Rome was governed by more of a partnership between himself and a senate. Although it wasn't a perfect arrangement, many senators were angry at Caesar's attempts to undermine their voices in directing the future of the Roman Empire. (Well, that, and some senators were just plain jealous of Caesar's power.)

Anyway, to make Shakespeare's 288-page story really short, Caesar, feeling pretty pleased with himself, is out parading through the streets of Rome when an old, crusty soothsayer (fortune teller) yells out to Caesar, "Beware the Ides of March!" A superstitious man, Caesar decides to listen to the warning and stay home on March 15th. But a so-called friend advises Caesar to go out that day and visit the senate. The conclusion: Caesar meets his doom.

So as I sat in the school council meeting on the Ides of March, the cautionary tale of Caesar made me think (which hurts when it happens, but I like it!). I'm asking myself, are some of the ideas being floated reminiscent of Caesar's move to control all of Rome and squelch input from the outside? Overly dramatic? Yes, totally! But being an English teacher, I couldn't resist the irony.

Some of the meeting procedings reminded me that the JIS community should maintain its vigilance and awareness when it comes to council's self-governance. For example:
  • We should request that council meeting agendas be posted on the JIS website in advance of the meeting. (That would help you decide whether you wanted to go to the meeting or not.)
  • We should be asking whether all agenda items for council meetings (open and closed) are made public, or if there are secret "off-agenda" items discussed during closed session.
  • We should know if votes are taken or decisions are made during these closed meetings. (School boards aren't allowed to do that in many, if not all school districts in the United States because of open meetings acts and so-call Sunshine Laws.)
  • If council does more than just deliberate during closed sessions, we should ask how it reports on the outcomes of those votes.
The point is, the community needs to understand both the issues being discussed in council meetings, and the positions that our elected representatives have taken on those issues. For example, if you look back at previous council meeting minutes (available via council's page on JIS' ParentNet), you won't be able to figure out who voted which way on any issue. In many cases, that won't be a big deal because the subjects under consideration are mundane, or the vote is unanimous. But when the vote concerns a serious issue that affects the education of children, wouldn't you like to know how council members voted?

(Click here for an example of minutes from a great high school's board of education meeting. Click this link if you're a real glutton for punishment and want to see meeting minutes -- for open AND closed sessions -- going back nearly two years for New Trier High School, which serves 4,000 students in Winnetka, IL.)

As I said in yesterday's blog, there are some great things happening in governance at JIS. We should applaud council's proposals to bring JIS moral owners (parents, teachers, alumni, students, and sponsoring organizations) into the discussion about amendments to Executive Limitations policies. And we should support council as it navigates throught the difficult transition between an old governance scheme and the Carver Governance model. These are bold and difficult moves!

But things could always be better. So let's encourage each other to ask the tough questions, and to share our opinions and thoughts on how council runs and reports on its meetings -- both critical elements of any governance policy. I have a feeling Julius Caesar would say, "Consider all voices, and provide as much information as possible. And don't feel you always must have the right answers -- or control every situation." That would have been good advice for him!

Hope everyone has a great weekend!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Governing those who govern

It can't be easy being a school council member....the long meetings, tough issues, plethora of reading and paperwork. Last night's monthly council meeting highlighted the difficulties that our elected representatives face as they pilot JIS toward even greater things.

To their credit, the council is facing the subject of its own governance head on and approaching the situation as "lifelong learners." Setting out the rules that determine how a governing body runs itself is difficult. Old policies and new ones must be reconciled. New ground must be explored. It would be like trying to fly the brand-new Airbus A380 with two manuals -- a new, untested flight manual, and an old one that you know isn't quite right for the new technology. You'd have to do a lot of learning-on-the-fly, so to speak, and that's hard. We should applaud the council's efforts.

So as a parent (and JIS moral owner), I was impressed to hear yesterday about council's work on its governance process. For example, council introduced several proposals for improving current policies on amending executive limitations. (Now, don't nod off in absolute boredom at this point! An "executive limitation" is just Carver Governance Policy language for "the limits that council imposes on the head-of-school to make sure that he/she doesn't use inappropriate means to reach the end goals.")

These new proposals focus on bringing the JIS community into the discussion about amending executive limitations by developing community awareness through:
  • posting information on council's website;
  • encouraging the community to contact council members for comments and/or input;
  • placing notices in the school bulletins stating which policy is being reviewed and reminding community members that they are invited to attend the discussion of that policy at the next council meeting.
These are great proposals! They promote collaboration and input, which is tremendous. But they also put the onus on parents to read the policies, share their opinions, and attend the meetings. That's a pain, but there are some policies that are important enough to be worth the effort.

Notice: the following statement is the equivalent of your doctor telling you to exercise. It is easy to ignore or procrastinate -- but you do so at your own (and in this case, your children's) peril!


NOW READ IT. Please, do read it. It's not the most scintillating prose ever written, and you might need to use toothpicks to prop your eyes open as you slowly dose off. But every word in its 22 pages affects the educational product that JIS produces.

Well, that's enough soap-boxing for the moment. Tomorrow: the lesson of Julius Caesar and the Ides of March.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Quick update on the school council meeting

I just returned from the school council meeting, which -- as predicted -- was very interesting. Tonight's blog note will have to be short, as I'm still wrapping my head around some of the discussion, and because we're dealing with a teenage crisis at home that requires urgent attention. (Hopefully some tender loving care will fix the situation on the homefront, but the school thing might be a smidgen more complicated.)

So let me mull over my notes and try to get my hands on some of the documents that were discussed, and I'll report in more detail tomorrow!

And by the way, thanks to everyone who's sent such nice notes about this blog -- you're all very kind and supportive! Don't forget that you also can register your support and ideas (or say you think I'm a nincompoop, if that's your opinion) by clicking the "comments" button under any blog article. You don't have to use your name; the only rule is "treat others as you would want to be treated." By commenting, you're helping all of us become smarter and wiser about the issues that face our school and our children.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

School Council Meeting

Tomorrow (Wednesday, March 15th) our JIS School Council will hold its monthly meeting. It's at 5:30 p.m. in the teachers' lounge at the Pondok Indah Elementary campus.

I'm going to attend, and I'll let you know what happens on this blog. If you can make it (which is tough with dinner time, homework, and traffic!), it should be an interesting event. Although I haven't seen an agenda, the Council's perpetual calendar (found in the back of the JIS Policy Governance Manual, which is available on the Council's page of ParentNet) says that this meeting will focus on:
  • Council-Executive linkages (under the Carver governance model, the "executive" is the headmaster, and the "linkage" describes how the two bodies work together and define their roles)
  • Financial accountability and performance
  • Reviewing ends policies and ends discussion (those are the big-picture issues: Who does the school serve? What service/outcome does the school provide? At what cost?)
Obviously, these all are big issues. And others are sure to come up. I'm hoping that much of this meeting will happen in open session, meaning that JIS community members will be able to listen to the discussion and debate.

School board meetings are tricky things. On one hand, the board (or council, in JIS' case), has business to conduct and discussions to hold. On the other hand, members of the community often have opinions or questions. Community members also want to understand the views and opinions of the people they've elected to represent them. To accomodate all these needs, board meetings (in the United States, at least....) are typically divided into three parts:
  1. The open session, where the board discusses agenda items. In many schools, the public is invited to watch the discussion, but does not play a role in it. As many at JIS like to say, this is "a meeting held in public, but not a public meeting."
  2. The public portion of the open session. This is when the people in the audience get to ask questions, make comments, or request information.
  3. The closed session. School boards sometimes must deliberate on issues that aren't suitable for a public discussion. The JIS policy goverance manual describes those situations as "sensitive matters not in the interest of the individuals concerned or of the School as a whole such as personnel, financial or security issues, acquisition or sale of real property, or grievance hearings."
The closed sessions are the tricky part. Closed sessions are very appropriate under certain circumstances, but they have to be used judiciously. The problem is that unless the rationalle for closing a session is explained carefully, closed meetings just look suspicious. In fact, in the States, there are very specific laws called "Open Meetings Acts" or "Sunshine Laws" (which vary slightly from state to state) that provide boards with guidance on open vs. closed meetings.

These laws on open meetings share a few points:
  • A board must clearly identify the agenda items that it will discuss during closed session, and it can't deviate from those items;
  • A board can discuss and debate those identified issues in closed session, but it can't vote on them or make any decisions about them. It has to re-open the meeting and vote in public;
  • A board must keep minutes of the closed sessions, which don't have to be released to the public.
Clearly, closed meetings have a place, but that place should be limited. Open meetings are a good thing for boards elected by a community because they just make logical sense, even when they aren't legally required. Open meetings encourage intellegent debate, transparency, and accountability. Discussing school issues publicly can be difficult, but it makes everyone smarter. Given the stakes, it's worth the difficulty.

Here are some websites with information on "open meetings acts" in the United States:

The Cypress-Fairbanks School District (Houston, Texas)
District 204 (Illinois)
West Virginia's Attorney General outlines the open meetings act
Q&A on Montana's open meetings rules
Kentucky School Board Association's page on the open meetings act

Monday, March 13, 2006

It takes a village....

Growing up outside of Chicago, I don't honestly remember my mom and dad playing much of a role in my education other than helping me with homework, attending parent-teacher conferences, and occassionally baking cookies for special events. I didn't feel especially deprived. In fact, as a teenager, I probably was thankful that my parents stayed away from school -- the threat of the chicken dance or some other humiliating parental outburst certainly loomed large.

But the long-honored tradition of distance between families and their schools has evolved since the '60s and '70s. Educators have realized that indeed, it takes a village to educate a child. And scholars are backing up what now seems like common sense with bucket-loads of research.

It all points to one conclusion: "When schools build partnerships with families that respond to their concerns, honor their contributions, and share power, they are able to sustain connections that are aimed at improving student achievement," (National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education website).

The question is then, what is JIS currently doing right in terms of building the partnership between the school and the JIS community? And what could it do better? For example, I think the weekly bulletins from each campus are a great start in terms of communications. How could they be more helpful? Any other ideas on how we could create the collaborative climate at JIS that will make JIS a better place for all our children?

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Hug a Teacher

Teacher Appreciation Day is still a couple of months off (May 2), but it's never a bad time to reflect on the great teachers who are the backbone of a school. We all have them: those amazing teachers who changed the course of our lives.

My alma mater (New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois) has a whole alumni discussion page dedicated to celebrating the teachers who made a real difference -- and with more than a 100 years of experience, the list is long! Mine is Mrs. Kelly, an AP English teacher. Although she never cracked a smile -- and assigned insane amounts of writing -- she treated us as scholars. She expected great things of us, and inspired us to achieve them. When I returned to New Trier to teach (more than 20 years after graduating), Mrs. Kelly was still there, still inspiring, still pushing.

As a teacher, I often received small gifts during the holidays and at the end of the year, ranging from the sublime (homemade fudge) to the ridiculous (cheap perfume -- I showered every day, I promise!). But the gifts that meant the most weren't material. The best gifts were notes from a student or a parent. These notes of appreciation made all the difference -- manna from heaven to a teacher.

So this May 2nd, think about your children's teachers at JIS. If you've got a good one, forget the fudge or perfume... instead, let him or her know that you think they're great. Tell them how they're impacting your child's life. Send a note or email (and if you're really feeling positive, copy the principal and the headmaster). A few minutes of your time will make a real difference!

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Why Bother?

My husband, Robert, returned from a trip last night, tired and frustrated from a day of doing business with a bunch of tired and frustrated people. Probably the last thing he wanted to do was checking out a blog....especially one about school. But he sat down patiently in front of the computer and started to read. After a few painful minutes, he blurted out, "For the love of God, why? Why now? We'll probably be gone in two years!"

Yikes. Very true.

Talking about things like school reform and standards and assessments is pretty heavy-duty. I can think of a zillion other topics that would be far more entertaining to discuss. And school changes can take a glacially long time -- especially if your time "in country" is limited by a work contract. The minute we first step foot in Jakarta, many expats already have the other foot headed out the door. So why bother starting down a road that will be fraught with uncomfortable debate, difficult choices, and no clear-cut answers? What's the upside?

The children are the upside. As John Dewey said, "What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children." I, for one, want to know what the smartest parents here want for their children. I'm certain all of us in the JIS community do.

The time for this discussion will never be better. JIS has so many good things to work with -- and so few of the roadblocks that often stand in the way of creating truly student-centered, engaging, powerful schools. Just ask anyone who's been a teacher or administrator in the United States how painful it is to have a bureaucrat breathing down your neck with some "flavor of the minute" mandate or requirement that has nothing to do with educating children. Now that's frustration.

At JIS, the world is our oyster. And while my little Sofia and Erik may never directly benefit from the debate, the children of the tomorrow's JIS community will -- and that's a good enough reason for me.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Ends vs. Means: the big question

Yesterday I went to a lunch attended by a large group of women, most of whom are JIS parents. As often happens, the conversation turned to the school, and inevitably, people began to describe their children's stories -- the good, the bad, and the ugly. As I listened, it became clear that although these stories focused on very specific situations, they also highlighted bigger issues that confront every school: educational standards, professional development and evaluation, student assessment....

The difference between big-picture issues (which the Carver governance model calls "ends issues") and specific family situations (which often raise what the Carver model calls ""means issues") is important, because each demands its own forum for discussion and expectations of resolution. As John Carver explains, the ends/means distinction allows school boards

"to govern the system, rather than run it; to define and demand educational results rather than poke and probe in educational and administrative processes; to redirect time from trivia and ritual actions to strategic leadership; to give a superintendent one boss rather than several; to grant administrators and educators great latitude within explicit boundaries; to be in charge of board agendas instead of dependent on staff; and to guarantee unbroken accountability from classroom to taxpayer."

Put simply, ends issues define ""what services are provided, to whom, and at what cost," while means issues look at how the services are delivered -- the day-to-day business of the school. Once that's clear, parents can figure out where to take their issues -- principals, PAFs, or the school council.

But the distinction between means and ends often isn't so clear. Consider standards. On one level, standards are very big picture, because they answer the question, "What do we want our children to be able to do when they leave JIS?" The answers to this question (eg. "be able to handle personal finances" or "be able to write a powerful issues brief" or "organize a budget for an existing business") are "big-picture" standards". They reflect what we want kids to be able to do at a specific point in time -- graduation. These are ENDS issues -- after all, they are the explanation of why the school's purpose, it's mission.

That being said, it's more common to look at standards as means issues. For example, if the big-picture standard is "students must be able to handle personal finances," then the administration has to figure out how to reach that END. That's the curriculum (for example, "we'll have to be sure that students understand math in real-world settings. In eleventh grade, that means students should know how to _____, and in tenth they'll have to be able to ______," and so on). These smaller steps that a student must take along the path to achieving the desired end result are also called standards. But clearly, these are curricular issues that should be considered MEANS issues.

An easy way to think about it is like this: "Big-picture standards" are ends that you want to achieve. Means-related standards are the baby-steps required along the way to reach the big goal. In the United States, most schools still operate by focusing mainly on the little steps, and if you look at the state-mandated standards (many established after the "No Child Left Behind" Act so that states could measure compliance), you'll see that those standards are very specific (e.g. "student will be able to calculate multiplication tables from a factor of 1 to 12"). Those types of standards are means. But that narrow view of standards is changing to embrace the larger definition.

The difference is important -- most parents think about standards in terms of their particular child ("is Johnny learning fractions when he should?"), which are means questions. But as a community, schools need to think also about standards in the big picture ("what do I want Johnny to be like when he graduates? What kind of person should he be? What kind of things should he be able to do?"). Those are the questions that should drive EVERYTHING at a school. It puts the headlamps on the student by forcing the school to say, "If we want our students to end up at X when they leave, how do we get them there?"

So how do we (meaning all members of the JIS community) have the discussion about ends issues? How do we know what the ends issues are? How do we separate ends from means? Any thoughts?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Welcome to the JIS dialogue!

In 1966, John F. Kennedy gave a speech in Cape Town, South Africa, in which he mentioned the "old Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times." While the curse may not actually be old -- or even Chinese -- it strikes an ironic chord. We definitely live in interesting times here in Jakarta. One of the most interesting parts of the experience for us: the Jakarta International School.

The JIS Topics blog is a spot for us to talk about JIS in ways that we might not be able to face-to-face because of work, travels, or traffic! As a community, we don't have many opportunities to get together and share ideas. Maybe this blog is one way to communicate, learn, explore and challenge -- as we work together to help JIS move from being a good school to being a great school.

The rules of engagement: treat others as you would like to be treated. Value each other's ideas, even if you disagree. Think collaboratively. We all share the same goal...improving the school on behalf of our children/students. So remember the wise words of the poet WH Auden when you comment: " love each other or perish."

Cheryl vT