New VVSD Chief: Current School System Needs an Overhaul
Under James Mitchem’s leadership, Valley View schools will increase rigor and focus on results.
The event, Mitchem’s first official address as the future leader of Valley View, was an unveiling of his vision for the district’s future, and his message was clear: The system doesn’t work.
“I’m not a really big believer in our system of education,” said Mitchem, who is currently principal of Bolingbrook High School. “I’m a big believer in the people in the system. Consequently, the system has to change.”
That change has already begun in Valley View with the approval of Mitchem’s administrative restructuring plan. The new structure, Mitchem has said, will offer more support for building principals and is aimed at boosting student achievement.
Mitchem called for “infinite effort” from teachers, who will focus on results–whether students have proven that they have mastered concepts—rather than on whether homework is completed or whether a student participates in classroom activities.
The changes will happen over several years, Mitchem said. The district will move to what he jokingly called the “dreaded 90/10,” meaning test scores, or summative assessments, will account for 90 percent of a student’s grade, while formative assessments, including homework, will make up the remaining 10 percent.
“I have many examples of kids … who on every assessment received a 92 percent or better but received a D in class,” due to not completing homework or not participating in class, Mitchem said. “At the end of the day, we need to assess and give credit to kids for what they know, not what they do.”
At the same time, he said, students must be held responsible for demonstrating their mastery of a subject.
“If they do not know it, we cannot give them credit for it no matter how much they comply,” Mitchem said, drawing applause from teachers as he added, “We will not move kids through the system ill-prepared for the next grade level.”
That will mean harder work for teachers as they ensure that all students master a grade level before moving on.
“I know not all of you are in it for the money,” he said, eliciting chuckles from teachers in the audience. “You’ll do everything you need to do to ensure that a child learns that content.”
Mitchem also said district staff will have to fill a new role when warranted: that of a parent.
“All of our kids do not have the supports that I had at home,” he said. “When we do not have the luxury of supportive parents, if we don’t take on that role, (students) will fail.”
More emphasis will also be placed on early interventions to make sure students are at grade level by third grade, Mitchem said, noting the first few years of school are critical to a student’s success for years to come.
“Third-grade reading proficiency influences high school achievement,” he said, saying research shows it can even predict ACT scores.
A tiered system will be put in place to offer interventions to struggling students, Mitchem said.
“I’m depending heavily on kindergarten to third-grade teachers to help shape that (system),” he said, adding major emphasis will be placed on literacy.
Intervention efforts will also be available to older students who struggle, Mitchem said.
Bridging the gap, raising the bar
According to Mitchem, the plan is also aimed at bridging the achievement gap between white students and minority students—a gap that’s been in place since American schools were integrated in 1954, he said.
“We spent over $3 trillion on the system from 1960 to today, yet we still have an achievement gap that exists and persists and grows. Why?” he said. “Either there really is a difference in our students—if that’s true, all the money and all the programs will not change that ... or there are flaws in our system.
“I ask that you join me in the belief that we as educators can make the difference.”
That means the elimination of lower-level courses in favor of a more rigorous curriculum to raise the bar, not lower it, Mitchem said.
“What is it that precludes us from having the most rigorous curriculum for our kids?” he asked. “”Nothing—nothing but what we believe about our kids.”
What does all this mean for teachers and staff?
“It means a lot of work, because we don’t have easy learners,” Mitchem told staff members at Tuesday’s public address.
But he believes most teachers will be supportive of the changes, citing the reaction of Bolingbrook High School staffers to similar efforts at the campus.
“As teachers begin to see the fruit of our labor … they begin to buy in,” he said. “Even skeptics, when they try it and it works.”
Whether it works will play into how administrators’ job performance is evaluated.
“We have had the luxury of not being held accountable for our outcomes,” Mitchem said. “Those days are over.”
The same goes for Mitchem, who said his own pay raises will be tied to student achievement.
“My contract is purely performance based,” he said. "No raises without results.”
Valley View board president Steve Quigley said he has faith in Mitchem’s plan for revamping the system.
“I know I believe in what he’s trying to accomplish,” Quigley said. “Very rarely do you find someone who puts himself out there and says, ‘I will be accountable.’”