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School Boards Meet to Keep It Real

Oct. 4, 2008 — In the good ol' days it was reading, writing and arithmetic that told the story of a student's learning. These days, says national education expert Brian K. Perkins, it's far more complex, and educators need to evaluate learning through a new lens if they truly want students to achieve.
"I'm sick to death of test scores," said Perkins. "I'm sick of it."
Perkins was Saturday's keynote speaker at a three-day regional meeting of the Northeast Conference of the National School Boards Association (NSBA). The nine representatives of the territory's school board belong to the Northeast conference, and this year's rotation among member organizations landed the annual meeting at Marriott's Frenchman's Reef Resort.
"Education: Keeping it Real for our Students, Families and Our Community" is the theme of the annual session, and Perkins' speech stressed ways in which educators could do just that — keep it real.
"Three things matter in school — relationships, relationships, relationships," said Perkins, quoting a statement from a colleague. "Children are very creative…They have poor relationships in one place and go somewhere else in the same school the same day and flourish. We need to pay attention to that."
Perkins, a Ph.D. in education from Columbia University Teacher's College, is currently the president of the New Haven (CT) Board of Education, and he serves on the board of directors of the NSBA. He's a consultant to school boards around the country, as well as to schools throughout South Africa.
According to Perkins, equity in education is not about fairness. Equal resources to unequal needs, Perkins said, is not equity.
He encouraged educators to evaluate their school's "climate." He told the group that if they are not regularly surveying their students, parents and stakeholders, they could be missing important factors that may be negatively framing the learning process. He cited a 25-question survey that he commonly recommends to schools, which includes questions about students' respect, or lack of it, for teachers.
"Students who feel they can trust the adults in the building and students who feel respected and are respectful, they do better on standardized tests," Perkins told the group. "Statistically, students with higher perceptions of school climate do 13-15 percent better in math and reading because there's a correlation between how we feel about being somewhere and how we perform."
He showed a sample graph which measured the percentage of student performance based on end-of-year tests in math and language arts. The students were divided into categories. Seventy percent of white students passed the tests, while 39 percent of blacks passed.
That, said Perkins, was not the most important fact to rise out of the survey. Students with limited language proficiency achieved a 36 percent pass rate, compared to 39 percent of black students. As surprising as that was, said Perkins, in his opinion, it still wasn't the most telling fact. Instead, he pointed to the fact that black students were within 10 percentage points of disabled students — 29 percent of whom passed both tests — as perhaps the most alarming and telling piece of information to come out of the survey.
"There are things we need to look at that are not…what you have been told you should be concerned about," Perkins said. "When you see numbers like that — that you only have 10 percent difference between students identified with disabilities and those who are not disabled, you need to look at that."
Perkins emphasized the need for professional development, asking anyone if they would go to a surgeon who was trained decades ago, and who had not kept up with changes in the medicine.
"Why would we send our children every day to places where we don't have a strong accountability system about acquiring new skills?" he asked.
Debra Smith-Watlington, chairman of the territory's board of education, was inspired by Perkins' talk.
"We must look at the data and plan what we must do with the data, regardless of demographics," she said. "We must ask 'why' and do more acting than talking."
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