February 2017
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Are we killing innovation in our schools? 

My column this month is not research based.  Please do not tell our state and federal policymakers I was bold enough to pen something original without citing a mountain of research.  I have no doubt they would be displeased with my original thinking on the topic of innovation in our public schools.  I am downright sure our policymakers would be disturbed by my contention that current federal and state education policy is stifling innovation in our public schools.  I have had this long-standing concern that innovation in our schools is being stifled by the good intentions of policymakers to raise student achievement. The recent reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has only heightened that concern. 

Prior to the last reauthorization of ESEA, school districts were encouraged to use "innovative strategies and proven methods for student learning, teaching, and school management... based on reliable research."  This encouragement made sense.  Teaching is both art and science.  Learning happens by trial and error.  Encouraging teachers to try innovative strategies alongside research based proven methods makes sense.  After the last reauthorization of ESEA (which gave us No Child Left Behind), schools were told to employ "proven strategies and proven methods... based on scientifically based research."  Did you notice what word is missing from the second directive to schools?  If you answered "innovation," you are correct.

So why am I so concerned about stifling innovation in schools?  What if the government told Henry Ford he could only manufacture the Model T using a method of car assembly already "successfully implemented and producing positive outcomes in a variety of situations?"  I guess if the U.S. Department of Education was around and regulating Ford at the time, Henry's idea for the assembly line would be out of the question.  What about limiting doctors to treating patients with proven methods while prohibiting promising methods.  Would we ever discover new ways to heal people?  I think most of us can agree on the answer.

Our schools should and must be local labs of innovation.  Our teachers should and must have the freedom to try new strategies to increase student engagement and achievement.  If we want our teachers to prepare our kids to be successful at careers not yet invented, how can we rely so heavily on proven strategies and proven methods based on scientific research applied only to what we already know?  The answer is, we cannot.

Now I am not suggesting we go crazy trying every newfangled strategy that comes our way.  What I do advocate for is a thoughtful approach, like the one we used prior to launching our 1:1 device program at Palos South.  Integrating technology into our middle school curriculum is innovative.  Before we decided to launch the program, we talked to our stakeholders to solicit their input.  We visited other school districts already deploying devices to learn from their success and more importantly, from their challenges.  Yes, we reviewed what the limited research at the time said about the educational benefits of 1:1 programs.  However, if we had to rely solely on proven strategies and proven methods... based on scientifically based research, we most likely would still be waiting to launch the program.

This year, we deployed devices to all eighth graders at Palos South.  Next year, we will deploy devices to all seventh graders and by the 2018-2019 school year, all Palos South students will have the opportunity to have their own device.  Integrating technology into our middle school curriculum is happening organically through daily innovation in the classroom.  Teachers and students need time to experiment with the new devices; to seek out ways to integrate technology into the great things they already do before discovering new ways to use technology to perform tasks that were previously inconceivable.  We should encourage the type of trial and error that will allow for discovering new innovative strategies for teaching and methods of learning - strategies and methods not yet specifically proven with empirical data. 

I am not sure when creativity, ingenuity and yes, innovation, became bad words in our public education lexicon.  It was probably around the same time many politicians and policymakers stopped trusting our public schools to educate our nation's children.  Perhaps that is a problem we need to research further.  In the meantime, Palos 118 will continue to embrace innovation and our students will be better prepared for the future because of it.

Dr. Anthony M. Scarsella,
Superintendent of Schools
Palos 118 Happenings
Palos South students participate in the PBIS faculty/student basketball game February 10.

Kindergarten Visitation Day took place on Thursday, February 9 at Palos East and West for incoming kindergartners this fall.

People You Should Know...
2016 Chicago Toy and Game Fair Young Inventor Challenge Winners
Three pairs of students from Palos East and West Schools won major awards in several categories at the annual Chicago Toy and Game Fair's Young Inventor Challenge this past November. The event provides an opportunity for children to showcase their own original toy & game inventions to toy & game industry professionals, members of media, and the general public. Pictured are Palos East fourth graders Olivia Wasilewski and Brynna Siewers, grand prize winners for their game Ship of Treasures, a pirate strategy game where players must find their opponents' treasure while avoiding cannonballs. Among the many featured prizes for the Grand Prize winners is a trip to New York City, a toy and game development mentorship with Pressman Toy and Target, and a chance to have their winning game in Target stores throughout the country. Olivia and Brynna are already working with the Pressman and Target to get their game on store shelves. 

The process was a positive one for both students.  Brynna says the most difficult challenge was "to create a game that was both strategy and luck driven and finding a theme that would appeal to both boys and girls of all ages." 

"You can always ask and get help from someone," said Olivia. Both students were thankful for everyone who helped them with their game, including their ALPS teacher Mrs. McNamara.

Other winners were Bella Narciso and Johnny Pempek, Runners-Up in the junior category for their game Seastack; and Madeleine Niemiec and Evelyn Dalton, People's Choice Award for their game Creativity Glue. 
Assessment Update
District 118 students in grades 3-8 will be participating in PARCC Testing during the month of March as the District testing window is set to open on Tuesday, March 7.  Each student will be assessed in English Language Arts and Math at his or her current grade level. Parents can refer to the chart below for the dates and number of testing sessions. Please know that each testing day will be limited to one scheduled test per student.  All dates are tentative, but parents will be notified should changes occur in the schedule. 
Grade Level
8th Grade
March   7, 8, 9
March  20, 21, 22
7th Grade
March  10, 13, 14
March  23, 24, 27
6th Grade
March  15, 16, 17
March  28, 29, 30
5th Grade
March   7, 8, 9
March  20, 21, 22, 23
4th Grade
March  10, 13, 14
March  24, 27, 28, 29
3rd Grade
March  15, 16, 17
March  27, 28, 29, 30
Additionally, make-up dates will be administered upon a student's return during the months of March and early April.
Helpful Tips for Preparing Your Children for Standardized Assessments
Parents can play an influential role in a child's outlook regarding standardized test taking.  By providing support and encouragement during testing, parents can help their child perform at a higher level and feel more at ease. I have compiled a few suggestions on how you can support your child's efforts at home.
  • Be positive and express confidence that your child will do well. 
    • Take an interest in standardized tests, but don't be so concerned that you make your child nervous.  
    • Encourage your child to listen to all directions carefully, ask questions if needed, and do his or her best. 
    • Help your child get to bed on time the night before the tests.  Keep your routine normal, and plan ahead to avoid conflicts in the morning. 
    • Make sure your child eats a good breakfast each morning, but not a heavy one.  Research shows that students do better if they eat a healthy breakfast before taking tests.
  • Allow time for physical activity or creative play in the early evening hours.
  • Have your child dress in comfortable clothing. 
  • Show an interest in your child's work every day, not just on test days. 
When the results arrive, review areas of strength and areas where there is room for improvement.  This may help your child understand that these types of tests can be a valuable tool to help every learner grow as an individual.  

District 118         Palos South         Palos East         Palos West