Cook column: Schools chief sees need for change
Dr. Lynn Moody is in the listening and learning mode.
Moody began her new job as superintendent of the Rowan-Salisbury Schools at the end of September. She spent an hour or two in every school during her first month here, meeting with principals and learning about the community.
She’s also in the talking mode, speaking at civic club luncheons and other functions so the community can get to know her, She quotes education reformer John Dewey — “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we will rob them of tomorrow” — and emphasizes the need for both change and accountability.
She does not say much publicly about Rowan-Salisbury’s ongoing and contentious efforts to site a central office except to say the issue has been — and she pauses — “challenging.”
“I’m going to leave that alone,” she told the Salisbury Rotary Club recently, “and talk to you about teaching and learning, which is my favorite thing to talk about.”
Moody had a lot to say about the challenges facing local public school leaders and the teamwork required to turn things around.
“If we don’t change the way we do things we can’t pretend to get a different result,” she said.
Here’s part of what Moody said to the Rotary Club, restructured into a Q&A format.
She started her talk by giving club members an assignment. “I am a teacher,” she reminded the group, She asked them to briefly jot down a few words on three small cards that were being passed around.
Q: What three things are people being asked to share?
A. The first card says “Bragging Rights.” ... Tell me, when you describe Rowan-Salisbury school district to your friends and you brag about us, what is it that you say? Or if you’d rather say it this way. “Lynn, when you change things, don’t screw with this. We like this. This is good.”
The next one is “Areas for Improvement.” This is where you’d like to see us make some growth. ...
And then the last one says, “What Matters Most.” Often when I’m talking with people about public education, what they want to improve on and what they say matters most — they’re two different things. I’m already hearing people say that where we need the greatest improvement is literacy and reading, and I would say that would be true, communitywide. ... Where if you asked a parent what matters most to them, they may say school safety.
Q: What will she do with all those cards?
A: We’ll take this work at the senior cabinet level — and I’ll probably lock them away for a day — and we’ll start looking at these cards ... Here’s what our community says they want out of public education. Here’s what teachers say. Here’s what some of our students say. Are those things different, are they alike?
I have some visions of my own, but it’s not all about what I think. It’s about what you can buy into and what I can gain support and implement.
Q: Then what?
A: As we start to look at those, we’ll pick two or three focus areas. And as we move forward with that, you’ll see a roll out. ... I had a conversation with Mike Miller (of Miller Davis Studios) earlier today to talk about how we would position this work so that we could roll it out in a way so that you could see by a quick logo or tag line the excitement of where we’re headed.
So you’ll start to see a new vision of this action and engagement, I hope in the near future.
Q: How will these focus areas be used?
A: The goal is to ... get our Board of Education to support or tweak that work in some way or change that work, and then we would align our budget.
So when we go to county commissioners in March or April, instead of saying we need the same old money to do same old thing, we will say, ‘This is what we want to do in this community ... and this is the way we need your help in doing it. This is what we’ll need to make that happen so that our strategies are aligned to our budget.’ Hopefully you’ll see that by the end of the school year. That’s the goal.”
Q: How does improvement begin?
A: “That kind of starts with confronting the brutal facts. I’ll touch on this and then I’m going to move on pretty quickly. You may have seen the test scores we had recently — it’s not all about test scores but test scores are important. It’s really hard to get people to fund your work when you can’t produce results in a way that’s tangible and objective …
“While we have great stories to tell about what’s happening in our classrooms, our data is not showing that we’re making growth. Actually, we’ve been declining over the last couple of years.
“While everybody’s test scores were dismal with the new common core this year, ours were worse. They were below state average — significantly below state average — and we really can’t excuse that work. We’ve got to do it differently, and we’re going to need all of you to help us … to make that change. I think that we have some teachers and administrators who are willing and ready to do that.”
Q: How do you plan to make change?
A: We have to have very specific strategies. I think one of those strategies that you will see very quickly will be literacy and then how do we integrate technology into our classroom?
Q: What’s an example of integrating technology into the classroom?
A. I walked into the media center of one of our schools … In there, students were defining words, looking up words and writing them on notebook paper. It really broke my heart. I stood there and thought: “That’s the old way of doing things.” They could be back in the classroom with a dictionary doing that work and you wouldn’t need an iMac station.
Where we want to take the students is when you walk into that media center what you see is they’re looking up definitions and comparing that to what does that mean in China and how is that culture different? How do they define it there. And what does it mean anyway? How do we use it in our work?
Q: Why do you put such emphasis on literacy?
A: What I dream of for every student is that they would be able to read first. ... If you can read, you have the whole world at your fingertips. You become your own teacher, your own facilitator of knowledge. We have to have our students reading. That has to be our No. 1 priority. And to do that we need to intervene and act early. This is beyond public education. ... All the research says language development happens at age 2, 3, 4 …. If they don’t have a chance to build vocabulary at that age, when they start kindergarten we are already behind in the teaching and learning process.
Q: So how do you bring students up to speed? How does the system teach reading?
A: We need to set high expectations for what good literacy looks like and what strong math skills look like. We already formed committees to work on that. Currently we’re teaching five different reading programs. And if you know anything about what the legislature has just done about “Read to Achieve” that brings on another challenge.
We have to have one standard way of teaching with clear expectations and guides on how to do that.
Once we have clear standards, then we have to monitor that in the classroom.
Every day I hope we will develop a culture of quality. I see that in many areas, and we just need to be sure it’s pervasive across the entire school district.
Q; How can our leaders set an example for students?
A: As leaders we have to model what we expect, and I think that starts with us. I reminded the board last night, if we expect students to work collaboratively, if we expect them to work as a team, if we expect them to be good citizens, then we need to do that first. So as principals, as teachers, as business leaders, we have to model what we want our children to do in this community. That’s not always happening in this community. We’ve become very (polarized) on many issues.
We have to teach something different to our students. And we need to stand accountable for those results.
Q: Is there something we can do to help make you successful or to help you with your work?
A: Can I get back to you in about two months? I’ve not worked anywhere where I’ve seen people come to the table like this community. This is really a philanthropic community. I’ve had a number of people come to my office and say, “Tell me what we can do.”
I need some time to develop this plan and tell you what the focus areas are, with your input … and come back. I want to be sure when I ask that we can produce results … I’m not there quite yet. I promise I will ask.