My Turn: Higher standards working in Juneau's schools

Teachers and families are teaching to new, higher standards in Juneau.

Literacy has long been recognized as the gateway skill to school success and preparation for the world beyond the schoolhouse. It remains true today, but has now been joined by mathematics as an essential predictor of success in schooling up to and beyond high school. While these two subjects are not the only two predictors of student success, they are the most powerful.

In Juneau, our students have historically achieved well in literacy but have typically performed less well in mathematics. Due to the focused dedication of our teachers, that is changing.

The process began two years ago, when the Juneau School District established a higher set of standards for literacy and math at each grade level. Then, looking at our students’ achievement data, we began offering professional training for teachers and asking whether or not we were providing the appropriate materials to teach rigorous mathematics for our youngest students. The answer was clearly, “No.”

Teachers at each of our elementary schools were given the opportunity to preview a range of instructional materials and provide input regarding which materials offered the best alignment of the new standards and their teaching strategies. As a result, each elementary school chose the same set of materials published by Houghton Mifflin named “Math in Focus: Singapore Math Curriculum.” Those materials were ordered last spring and are now used in each of our elementary classrooms. The materials include texts, computer-based learning, and online resources for families — all designed to support teachers and families in teaching to our new, higher standards.

Early indications are that this system works. Reports are promising, and in the words of a third-grade teacher recently, “My students are doing things in math that they never would have done before.” Families are embracing this new approach as well, with an encouraging 110 people attending Math Parent University Nights so far this year. There have been nearly 500 visits to the Math is Fun blog on the Parent section of the Juneau School District website in the past month.

This collaborative process marks a new way for our district to improve student learning. Using student progress data, school-based teams of teachers will work together with their colleagues district-wide to strengthen programs and improve students’ academic success to meet higher standards in all subjects.

The value of this process is that it leverages teacher expertise to create a systemic approach to teaching district-wide. This is very important as it provides consistency for our students, especially those who change schools, and consistency in a rigorous curriculum in all schools.

These efforts will help us meet the needs of each one, every one of our students as we prepare them for success beyond high school.

• Gelbrich is the Superintendent of the Juneau School District.

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