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Outlining the problem

SoVaNow.com / August 28, 2013


Dear Viewpoint:

I will be submitting a series of letters to respond to any confusion that has arisen as a result of a number of inaccurate statements made at the school board meeting or written by one of the local newspapers.

We knew three years ago that the new SOL tests were coming. We were told by the state that these tests would be more rigorous and include complex problems. We were told students would have to have a deeper understanding of the standards taught and be able to apply what they had learned. Due to this, I initiated an external review of instruction for our middle and high schools to determine where we needed to improve or change.

Eighty-six percent (86%) of our teachers were observed providing teacher-centered instruction for a significant portion of the class periods. The Southern Regional Education Board has studied instructional activities in the classrooms of 2500 secondary school since the mid 1980’s and has found direct, teacher-centered instruction can create an environment that may inhibit learning. This was found to be particularly troubling, especially when considering new SOL tests .

The studies established that if teacher led instruction is expanded to include active participation above the recall level, student achievement and attendance improves as does the success of students in post- secondary endeavors in college and the workplace.

Our teachers did very well with students on the old version of the SOLs which required more rote memorization and recall. During the study, our teachers reported that the facts students are expected to know were the primary focus of preparing lessons. It was evident from the observations that in practice, instruction was designed with a focus more on the retention of facts rather than with activities that would encourage problem solving and creativity.

Recommendations from the external review included:

Division adoption of a common blueprint for planning and implementing instruction in the classrooms.

Provide for the active engagement of students in their own learning so that they are addressing not only content skills, but also the processing skills as well.

Employ the services of an external organization to assist in developing blueprint for instruction.

We completed all three of these items. We have a common lesson plan template for teachers to guide instruction that includes opportunities for students to collaborate and be creative. We have implemented PBL to provide the active engagement of students in their own learning emphasizing 21st skills. We hired external partners to provide training and assist in developing the “TEACH” document which is our blueprint for teaching and learning.

Phase one of implementation was the initial pilot in 6th grade last year. Scores in 6th grade PBL classrooms outscored traditional classrooms in all subject areas. The focus of our continued work is to expand deeper learning activities throughout all grade levels of the school division in response to the increased rigor and new SOLs. We have some of the finest teachers in the state and to suggest that we need to “slow down” for “buy in” is insulting to these fine educators who are not only capable of making these needed changes in instructional delivery, they will always be dedicated to whatever it takes to ensuring “All of our children are well.” I believe in our teachers and our collective ability to do what’s best for the students of Mecklenburg County.

Bottom line, our world has changed; our accountability and testing system has changed at both the state and national levels; our global workforce readiness skills have changed; and as such, so must we.

More information on deeper learning and PBL will follow. Great instructional practices and continual learning opportunities for students and teachers alike will continue to be our focus.

Sincerely,
James Thornton
Division Superintendent

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