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In Rush to Innovate, FCPS Dropped the Ball

Poor Outreach on Online Textbooks and AAP Centers a Self-Inflicted Wound

Last week, Mason District representative Sandy Evans and I had the opportunity to sit down with high school student leaders from the Falls Church, Annandale, Stuart and Thomas Jefferson communities, and we had barely begun our conversation before hands shot up to protest the new online mathematics textbooks. I was not surprised by their vociferousness — after all, change is always difficult. 

However, the ongoing shift to online textbooks continues to expose new problems, some foreseen and some unforeseen. As the students reiterated, publisher technical glitches, a shortage of hardback books and a lack of education in how to use the textbooks have left many students, parents and teachers in despair. Some parents have even had to resort to buying copies of the expensive hardback textbooks. To complicate matters, student computer and internet access remains a concern, as many students lack the necessary computer hardware and infrastructure at home. For example, the power outages accompanying Hurricane Sandy prevented students from completing their homework since their books required an internet connection and, of course, electricity. As the School Board was undergoing a massive turnover last year while textbook talks progressed, half of the Board had little knowledge of the looming changes. 

Around the same time I heard the first rumblings about the textbook situation at back-to-school nights in September, staff had begun to discuss potential changes to our AAP (Advanced Academic Placement) Centers by 2013 with the AAP Advisory Committee (AAPAC). The intentions of staff were good — to gain advance feedback from a highly knowledgeable group of community stakeholders. Yet as news of the potential changes spread, it appeared to the broader community that staff had made a decision without its feedback or input from the School Board. 

Both the online textbook and AAP Center changes are forward-looking steps for FCPS. There is little doubt that online textbooks, like their cousins Kindle and Nook, are the way of the future, and we must adapt to embrace them. Similarly, our current AAP Centers are bursting at the seams, and being able to teach our gifted children in their base pyramids with Center-like academic rigor is a significant aspirational goal. But asking our teachers and community to adapt to these changes during the same year they are facing state-mandated teacher evaluations, SOL changes, new elementary-level grading standards and multitudinous other initiatives, is unsustainable. Being in the midst of hiring a new Superintendent only adds to the concern that FCPS has rushed the implementation of these initiatives.

As a school system, we must acknowledge these mistakes so we can correct them as quickly as possible and avoid repeating them. FCPS took shortcuts by failing to implement a mathematics textbook pilot and failing to acknowledge that community engagement on potential AAP changes should come before releasing extensive plans. In a county with many diverse issues and complexities, there are bound to be problems stemming from county-wide initiatives, but these shortcuts in outreach have gouged a self-inflicted wound in the system.

On the other hand, these past few months have provided an important learning experience for FCPS, offering insight in how to better engage and educate the community. Since issues began to arise, staff has worked nonstop negotiating with online textbook publishers and laying out a schedule for AAP Center public engagement. The School Board is fully committed to working through these issues with the community in the coming months. Meanwhile, we will continue to prioritize narrowing the digital divide. We will continue to work toward building strong community schools. And we will continue to maintain our high-quality AAP program. The missteps over the past few months will not cause us to lose sight of the bigger picture: helping all of our children succeed.
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Community meetings to discuss potential AAP Center changes have been announced for 7 p.m. Nov. 27 at Westfield High School, Nov. 28 Lee High School, and Nov. 29 and Kilmer Middle School. In addition, the School Board will be discussing both the online textbooks and AAP Centers at our work-session on December 10. Moving forward, please let us know your opinions.

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Ryan McElveen is an At-large Member of the Fairfax County School Board. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the School Board. He can be reached at ryan.mcelveen@fcps.edu

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Mozart November 22, 2012 at 02:11 AM
Montgomery County didn't publicly identify the other leading contenders before announcing Joshua Starr's appointment in 2011. Doing so might drive away some good candidates for the reasons previously noted. Perhaps a middle ground would be to appoint parent representatives from different clusters to a search committee, or an advisory committee, but require them to sign NDAs, if something like that is not currently being done.
John Farrell November 22, 2012 at 02:29 AM
The Broad Foundation is behind this secrecy strategy to try to eliminate accountability of public school superintendents to the public. Any candidate too fearful to encounter the public for whom s/he seeks to work before getting the job is far too cowardly to be worthy to lead the country's 11th largest school division in a county with the 3rd highest rate of graduate education in that country. Any superintendent hired in secret will believe, as Dale Fail does, that the public be damned and the School Board are his lackeys. Secrecy is antithetical to democracy. Especially in a local government.
Mozart November 22, 2012 at 02:46 PM
Some positions in government are elected. Others are appointed. The Superintendant's position falls in the latter category. I would hope the School Board would ask its executive recruiting consultants what impact the vetting of the names of finalists with the public prior to a final selection might make on the willingness of strong candidates to apply for the position. I doubt they will advise the School Board that modeling the selection on "American Idol" will elicit the strongest candidates. However, if enough people are dissatisfied with the appointee, they could seek to have the post turned into an elected position; ask the School Board to terminate the individual's contract; and/or replace the School Board members who appointed him or her.
John Farrell November 22, 2012 at 03:11 PM
Anonymous Mozart (your preference for secrecy is obvious) HYA doesn't want to be accountable to the public that pays it bills so, no surprise, it advocates for a secret process. A public process brought Dan Domenech who had been the leader of the NYC schools. His predecessor, Bob Spillane, had been the leader of Boston's schools. Dale Fail came from Frederick, MD - that secret process resulted in a big upgrade, huh? And they were happy to be rid of him! The Fairfax job is a prestigious career capstone for any superintendent. The reward far exceeds the risk of disclosure. Any candidate who is too cowardly to allow their identity to be revealed if they are among the finalists is unworthy of the Fairfax students, parents, teachers and taxpayers. Any candidate who refuses to interact with the Fairfax public may well have something to hide. The remedies suggested for a repeat of the Dale Fail process are illusory. The successful candidate will sign a 4+ year contract carrying beyond the next School Board election in 2015. Get it right, in the sunshine.
cmkg November 27, 2012 at 08:10 PM
I voiced my concerns and the difficulites my child was having with the electronic textbooks. Other classmates had similar problems also. The web site would not open, would freeze, or even after successfully logging on, the pages wouldn't turn. Teacher was notified, but exams were still given despite the techical difficulties students were having.

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