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McDuffie County schools adopt method to foster improvement

The role of the teacher is changing for the McDuffie County School District.

With Assistant Superintendent Mychele Rhodes looking on, 40 educators from schools throughout the district met recently at Thomson-McDuffie Middle School to learn how to implement a new student-centered, standards-based approach. As high-quality classroom assessment expert Karen Bailey told the school board earlier in the week, simply teaching the materials to students isn't enough to meet today's high standards established by No Child Left Behind and other initiatives.

"Instead, it has to be about what did my kids learn?" Bailey said. "What do our children know? What evidence do we have that they are pushing themselves and being pushed forward?"

Cheryl Loungeway, a fourth-grade teacher at Norris Elementary, emphasized that the new teaching strategies would be an adjustment for parents and for students.

The students' abilities to explain their progress at school will be a key part of the learning process.

"We're not teaching a test. We're not teaching the class as a whole," said Heather Jackson, a third-grade teacher at Dearing Elementary. "We're teaching the student and we're doing what we have to do based upon the student's needs, their modifications and so forth."

One of the biggest changes being phased in is a larger focus on "scoring," rather than "grading." Thomson High chemistry teacher Cedric Bacon said the idea is "to take the fear out of failure."

Ultimately, students will still be judged by their final grades, but often their assignments might come with either a numerical score on which they can improve with subsequent attempts or a specific notation indicating what they need to study. That will let the students know what they're doing wrong and motivate them to correct their mistakes, Bacon said.

"A grade is more final and most kids see a grade and they're done," Loungeway said. "Scoring directs the kid where to go from here."

Jackson said the new approach is just the latest example of strong efforts to improve the quality of education at all levels throughout the county.

"McDuffie is at the forefront of this," she said. "I'm very proud to be a McDuffie employee because of that."

All of the teachers involved seemed eager to learn more and start implementing their new ideas into their curriculum for this school year, and Superintendent Jim LeBrun said he's heard only positive feedback about Bailey's training methods from the approximately 80 teachers that volunteered to participate this year and last year.

"She's very interested and upbeat," said Candy Candler, a third-grade teacher at Thomson Elementary. "She's active and she presents her information well. She doesn't just tell us, she shows us how it works."

Whether it was at the school board planning session or in front of a room full of eager teachers, Bailey demonstrated her passion for learning with plenty of energy and interaction with her audience.

After her 13-minute presentation to the school board, board member Greg Derry said he was hooked from the start and joked that Bailey should announce Thomson football games.

Many of the teachers at the training reflected that enthusiasm and eagerly discussed the ways they could immediately take the new approach back to their classrooms.

Still, Jackson cautioned that dramatic changes aren't going to take place overnight.

Rhodes said the training seminars are being limited to just 40 teachers to improve the conversation between groups and make sure everyone is thoroughly trained.

As a result, Benson said it will likely be several years before teachers, students and parents have fully adapted.

"It is an evolving fluid process that you will always be working to make it better and better and better as kids change and time changes and we change," Benson said.

Web posted on Thursday, September 01, 2011

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