AlmaIn the spirit of New Orleans, a high school band, complete with tubas and clarinets, welcomed clapping attendees to the opening keynote session of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s (ASCD’s) annual conference earlier this month. And it was this same spirit that infused the entire conference, as speakers embraced themes of hope and rebirth and applied them to the state of education today.

“We chose New Orleans because the city embodies a spirit of change. In the face of disaster, this city sees the chance to rebuild better and stronger–to reinvent itself. Like the challenges the U.S faces in education, there is hope, there is courage, and there are plans to make it better,” said Nancy DeFord, immediate past president of ASCD. DeFord has been replaced by Valerie Page Truesdale, superintendent of Beaufort County School District in Beaufort, S.C., which serves over 19,000 students in the most rapidly growing county in that state.

Paul Vallas, superintendent of the New Orleans Recovery School District, said that even though 70 percent of the children in Louisiana suffer from poverty, and the state has the lowest reading scores among 4th graders in the country, “we are a proud and courageous people, and we know that we will only become wealthy when we become a well-educated people.”

Vallas said the state has approved new math and reading programs for all schools this year.

In keeping with the spirit of the conference, Deirdra Grode, a seventh and eighth grade social studies and language arts teacher at Hoboken Charter School in Hoboken, N.J., helps her students understand that knowledge and courage can lead to positive changes in the world.

Grode was the winner of ASCD’s 2008 Outstanding Young Educator Award. She says she expects her students to “view the world with critical minds and be leaders of positive change in their communities.” To help her students accomplish this, she regularly exposes them to different perspectives and provides them with innovative service learning and character education opportunities.

For example, when most middle school students learn about slavery, they focus on its existence in colonial America and the role it played in the Civil War. Grode addresses those aspects of slavery with her students, but she also has them examine strategies of change used by abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to explore how they can become agents of change themselves. Her students then research examples of contemporary slavery–from child soldiers in the Burmese Army to agricultural workers in the United States who receive no pay for their work–and create informational brochures to educate the community about slavery’s existence today and how it can be stopped.

Grode related the story of how she became involved in her current work. She said during her freshman year in college she was required to take a community service course. For two days a week she taught at a prison.

“People said, ‘If only I had worked harder in school.’ I wondered if schools could have served them better as well. This experience had a profound effect on my life, because I realized I wanted to help young adults master those essential 21st century life skills,” Grode said.

ASCD Executive Director Gene Carter recognized Grode for promoting tolerance, raising her students’ awareness of social justice issues, and teaching them to be leaders of change in their communities. In doing so, “she exemplifies what it means to teach the whole child,” said Carter.

Alfredo Huereca, principal of the elementary and middle grade levels at Hoboken Charter School, nominated Grode for the award and described how her leadership extends well beyond the walls of her classroom. She mentors staff, leads professional development sessions, acts as a liaison between other teachers and the school’s administration, and coordinates testing and school scheduling, Huereca said. She also wrote the school’s fifth through eighth grade social studies and language arts curriculum and worked on its charter renewal and annual report.

Grode will receive a $10,000 cash award and an ASCD Institutional Membership for her school.

Promises that every child needs

Keynote speaker Alma Powell, wife of Colin Powell and chair of the board of America’s Promise Alliance said teachers represent the security of the nation and the world, because “what happens inside the classroom shapes our future forces, success, and national security.”

Powell also noted that, even with exceptional teachers, 7,000 students drop out of school at the end of every school day. Those who drop out are twice as likely to be poor. She explained that it’s not the children who are failing, it’s the community that is failing them.

“They only have what we give them starting at birth. We need to care for the whole child. It’s not just a school problem, it’s a community problem, and the U.S must have a stronger understanding of what ‘community’ means. We have lost sight of what kids need to be successful. … It takes more than NCLB and its half successes. We need to be accountable for more than just test scores,” exclaimed Powell.

According to America’s Promise Alliance, there are five things, or promises, that every child needs: caring adults, safe places, a healthy start, effective education that teaches life skills, and an opportunity to help others and give back to the community.

“All countries are different, all cultures are different, but these five basic promises are things every child in the world needs. Even if we only achieve four, children will be twice as likely to stay in school, get good grades, and go to college,” said Powell. However, according to Powell, less than one-third of children 17 years of age or younger are getting all five promises.

But like the city of New Orleans, which is struggling to rebuild itself after numerous obstacles, education, too, has a silver lining.

Through America’s Promise Alliance, Powell noted, people are becoming more aware of the problems facing today’s youth and are taking action.

America’s Promise Alliance now has more than 170 partners covering every sector in education, and the Alliance has just set a new goal of improving the lives of 15 million children in the next year.

Explained Powell: “We will go to where the kids are, starting with schools; we will try to make sure that every child receives health care; and, starting with children in middle schools, we will educate about service learning and career exploration.”

Powell concluded ASCD’s opening session by telling the story of “Big Mike, a six-foot-six, 300-pound high school student.”

“Big Mike’s father was nowhere to be found, and his mother was addicted to crack cocaine. He was homeless and had nowhere to go. One day, a mother whose child was a friend of Big Mike saw him walking home in the snow with sneakers, shorts, and a t-shirt. She pulled over and said, ‘Mike, where are you going?’ He replied, ‘Nowhere, just wandering.’ She decided that moment to take him home and raise him as her own. He had nutritious meals, he went to school every day, he had a bed to sleep in, and every night she helped him with his homework. Now Mike has not only graduated high school and college, but he’s in first draft position for the NFL.”

She added that the problems in education are like the science experiment where a teacher fills a jar with rocks and asks the students if it’s full. Then the teacher adds sand and asks the students if it’s full. Finally the teacher adds water and asks if the jar is full.

“If we focus on just the big rocks, nothing will change. We must focus on the whole, fill in every gap, in order to achieve real change,” she said.

At the end of the closing general session, Truesdale took office, taking to heart Powell’s words.

“Beaufort County School District’s vision is to collaborate with an engaged community to provide all learners an excellent education in a safe, nurturing learning environment. ASCD shares this vision, and I look forward to working with the organization to make Beaufort County’s vision a reality for learners worldwide,” said Truesdale. “ASCD’s focus on learning beyond geographic boundaries is a guiding light for educators around the globe as we seek to understand ‘what works’ in classrooms in many lands.”

Truesdale was district superintendent for Oconee County Schools in South Carolina from 2003 to 2007. Before that, she served as chief instructional services officer for Lexington-Richland School District Five in Irmo, S.C., for nine years. She was also a deputy superintendent for the South Carolina Department of Education, where she supervised areas of policy, teacher licensure, technology, and student performance. Truesdale has been a high school principal, assistant principal, personnel administrator, and college department leader. She is proud to have been a teacher for more than 30 years.

Linda Mariotti, assistant superintendent of the Granite School District in Salt Lake City, Utah, is ASCD’s new president-elect. New board members for 2008-09 include Robert Bruckner, director of elementary education for Westside Community Schools in Omaha, Neb.; Katherine Howard, associate superintendent for South Carolina’s Greenville County Schools; Marsha Jones, assistant superintendent of Springdale School District in Springdale, Ark.; Roland Kay, pscho-educational resource staff for the Renfrew County District School Board in Pembroke, Ontario; and Mark Sutter, director of academic services for Ohio’s Elyria City Schools.

Neuroscience supports individualized instruction

In another noteworthy conference session, Judy Willis, an author and researcher who has a medical degree and a master’s degree in education, said studies of the brain suggest that every child learns differently–a finding that supports the idea of individualized instruction.

“What we’re learning about the brain is that everyone learns differently, and just because one way of learning works for this half, doesn’t mean that it works for the other half; just because everyone learns one way, doesn’t mean this girl or that boy learns like the rest of the class,” she explained.

In more technical terms, Willis said that as brain-imaging studies continue to give a clearer picture of how individuals respond to sensory stimuli and perform cognitive tasks, scientists are accumulating a great deal of knowledge about the brain’s neural systems. And educators can use these neurological strategies in their teaching to help students become more engaged in the classroom, she said.

For example, Willis recommends practicing multisensory teaching to help reach all kinds of learners–and using formative assessments to provide corrective feedback.

“Eventually, we will be able to identify the predispositions and strengths of all children based on brain activity, and we as educators must understand what this implies for the future–that the future will require us to teach to the individual, not to the whole or the differentiated,” said Willis.

She continued: “Every brain is unique, and every brain knows what it wants to do and what it can do best. Since every brain is different, we must teach to the individual learner so that every student can master 21st century skills.”

‘Learning’ replaces ‘teaching’

During yet another notable conference session, Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and Mary Dean Barringer, chief operating officer of All Kinds of Minds , discussed how education in the United States is shifting from an emphasis on teaching to one of learning.

“There’s a focus more on students now than on schools,” explained Barringer. “…Learning is the absolute central focus. We’re moving from [focusing on] methods of teaching to how every student can learn well.”

Economically, Levine said, the U.S. is moving from an industrial society focused on process and product lines, to an information economy that cares about customizable outcomes, and the process is variable.

“We as a country have dramatically shifted,” said Levine. “Low-level jobs have gone abroad, meaning that students now require more education than ever before in history. All students must be educated. A high school diploma won’t cut it anymore. It’s a move from just-in-case education to just-in-time education.”

According to Levine, student populations are also changing. Minority populations are expanding, immigration is surging, there are large numbers of multi-lingual and English language learners, more people are being diagnosed with learning disabilities, and the population as a whole is aging.

Because of the economic and demographic changes that are occurring, Levine believes that learning materials soon will cater more to individual students, not the entire class, and that materials will not be book-based but will include every medium–visual, audio, and interactive.

Also, education will be virtualized through online classes and virtual field trips.

“A class will be able to span the globe. A teacher from Texas can be teaching to students anywhere from Japan to California. A student listening from California can ask the student from Japan–through a language-translation tool–what the educator just said, because he missed it. The implications are far-reaching,” said Levine.

“Why will we need to have a physical school building?” he asked.

Other changes will include the need for states and schools to redesign assessments for individual instruction, keeping in mind that individual students can come from various cultures and backgrounds. “Students who are now labeled as having learning disabilities will probably be labeled as learning differently,” said Levine.

As these changes unfold, new technology will be integrated into curricular products to teach to individual learners, he predicted, and every technology will cater to various learning styles.

“Teachers will also have new roles,” explained Levine. “They will serve as diagnosticians, assessors, and prescribers.”

For Barringer, educators “can’t just focus on what students don’t have; they must focus on each student’s assets and know how to cultivate those assets.”

News from the exhibit hall