Creating an environment where all students learn

Retired Superintendent, Al Mamary, reports that Johnson City, a school district of approximately 3000 students near Binghamton, New York, has been successful in creating a program that encourages self-directed learning and active staff participation in policy decisions.

Although all the schools in this district are Chapter 1 schools and approximately half their students enter school from non-English speaking homes, on state-mandated exams, 99 percent of their 3rd graders score above the state-wide reference point (the point at which the state defines students as learning adequately) in math and 75 percent score above it in reading.

By sixth grade, 90 percent of these students score above the reference point in reading. 8th grade students scored at the 12.9 grade level in math and 11.8 grade level in reading on the 1993 California Achievement Test.

In addition, between 48 and 78 percent of Johnson City students graduate with a Regents diploma compared to only 34 percent statewide. Though not one student took Advanced Placement Exams in 1972, currently between 25 and 35 percent of seniors take at least one Advanced Placement exam. Last year, 111 out of 189 students who took an exam earned passing grades of 3, 4, or 5.

Dropout rate declines sharply

The vandalism budget in Johnson City School District is about $200 a year and the dropout rate has fallen to 3 percent.

Reform efforts began in 1971-72 when 135 administrators, teachers, parents and members of the community met one night a week for six weeks to discuss how their schools could better prepare students for the future. Following these meetings the school board passed a resolution committing the entire school community to reform.

Mamary believes that creating the right environment was the first and most important task in reforming the Johnson City schools.

The right environment, in Mamary’s opinion, is one that develops a love of learning and a caring for one another. It is one in which people don’t blame one another and where there’s no humiliation or coercion.

Position is not power

In 1972 when the reform process began, everyone was told that position is not power, but instead, that knowledge is power, using knowledge is power. Administrators, teachers, students and parents were considered co-workers, co-learners and co-doers. Three rules guide reforms:

1. All staff members will be involved in every major decision.

2. We will always strive for 100 percent agreement, even if we have to go back many times.

3. Everybody lives by an agreement until we change it.

Mamary stresses that continuity of administration, specificity of goals and commitment to long-term efforts were the major factors in their success.

The schools used criterion-referenced tests rather than norm-referenced tests to measure learning as they tried new approaches to teaching. They made mistakes — Mamary reports that they tried individualized learning but failed to get the desired results and then went through three phases of mastery learning before trying outcome-based learning. They have used outcome-based education now for several years. However, Mamary sresses that a good environment is the crucial factor for success with any teaching method.

With outcome-based assessment they began by asking: “What we do want to happen?” Their mission was to make all students learn well. They knew what they wanted students to learn and intentionally aligned instruction with these outcomes. Teachers decided what they wanted to produce and using the best research in the field took actions in accord with these desired outcomes.

At first they focused on what teachers do but eventually realized that for outcome-based learning to succeed, children had to be involved in assessment. Mamary believes in co-assessment.

Students and teachers together establish standards of quality. In Johnson City schools, students judge if a paper is their best effort. If they feel it is, they sign it. With this simple technique, he reports that children are not willing to hand in anything but quality work.

Three types of outcomes

Johnson City focuses on three types of outcomes. The first is academics, the only type that is graded. The second is developing work and process skills such as being able to work in groups, to make decisions, to solve problems and to communicate. Third is helping students be self-directed in learning. Students should be able to use the tools of the discipline to carry out an investigation. Teachers attempt to measure how well students are doing in these last two areas, but they don’t grade students on such outcomes.

Crucial to success is defining outcomes in clear, easy-to-understand terms. Mamary states that when outcomes are defined clearly and sensibly, teachers and parents support the reform efforts. For example, one way we define self-esteem is that kids should take reasonable risks in learning. This kind of definition helps avoid inappropriate programs like naming “student of the month.”

It is essential to make specific provisions for accomplishing each outcome. Once all teachers and parents agree on an outcome such as wanting kids to take reasonable risks in learning, then standards or indicators are needed that describe what a teacher should be doing to help children attain that outcome.

Teachers realize that in order for kids to take risks, open-ended questions need to be asked and students need to be given time to respond before teachers jump in with the answer or call on someone else.

At the same time, to create an environment where students feel free to take risks, teachers don’t put kids down or allow students to humiliate one another. Since students are not always correct when they take a risk, teachers encourage risk taking by allowing retests and changed grades when students show improvement.

A mistake to mandate outcomes

Addressing criticisms of outcome-based education, Mamary concludes that it is a mistake to mandate outcomes. He believes that when people in each community develop their own outcomes, they understand and are supportive of reforms.

“On Creating an Environment Where All Students Learn: A Conversation with Al Mamary”, Educational Leadership, Volume 51, Number 6, March 1994, pp.24-28, ERN telephone interview April 26, 1994.

Published in ERN May/June 1994, Volume 7, Number 3.

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