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Keep an Eye on Montana

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August 15, 2012 05:59 pm


During the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, I focused a lot on international academic comparisons and what “training practices” the US can learn to improve students’ academic performance. Yet just shuttle from Heathrow to Helena to see both commitment and efforts that show how American students can be on the winner’s podium.

Recently, I attended the Graduation Matters Montana Summer Summit organized by Montana State Superintendent Denise Juneau and the Office of Public Instruction. I’m always impressed when 170 educators and business leaders give up part of their summer to spend several days focusing on cutting the state’s dropout rate.Superintendent Juneau has forged an effective coalition, active since 2010, that now covers 65 percent of all students in 26 communities. Educators, business leaders, community leaders, and funders have developed a genuine strategy for improving graduation rates. Montana is making gains; already it has an 82 percent graduation rate measured by the now federally required adjusted cohort rate.

Distance obviously presents numerous challenges for instituting education reforms. One speaker described the state as covering the distance between New York City and Chicago but having the population of Vermont. Over 400 school districts, many overlapping, deliver education.

Montana is a state that is small in population with a small state education agency, but it has consistently demonstrated a commitment to instituting necessary changes. One energetic young SEA staff member smiled and stated, “I love the Common Core.” Montana took time to study the Common Core State Standards before adopting, but now is aggressively pursuing implementation. The Montana OPI also won a rare federal Striving Readers grant for developing literacy strategy in secondary schools. This comes on top of longstanding efforts to improve literacy in the early grades.

Superintendent Juneau, the first American Indian woman elected to statewide office, is one of those quietly determined people who listens well and then sets out to achieve her goals. One of her objectives is to develop a comprehensive longitudinal data system that will eventually assist districts in building early warning systems that can identify students who are beginning to fall behind.

Also underway in Montana is a state-funded Montana Digital Academy that provides both credit recovery and courses for credit. I visited a high school where approximately thirty students were in a summer classroom taking various online courses as a teacher went from student to student offering assistance. The Montana Digital Academy enrollment is already twice what was initially projected.

My final impression came at a panel discussion of Montana business owners and operators about the skills they needed from the state’s graduates. A banker, public broadcasting official, resort owner, and an insurance agent all expressed the same desire that students have a strong academic content foundation combined with the ability to communicate and collaborate with others and think creatively.

As the resort owner said, “I hire a large number of students each summer who have to be able to address wide ranging questions or handle unforeseen situations while working with very influential and important guests.”

This is quite an ambitious agenda: implementing the Common Core, developing a comprehensive data system, embedding literacy in every grade, using digital learning to provide access in a rural state, and moving to a learner-centered experience that emphasizes deeper learning competencies.

It’s a small state office in Montana with a large commitment and determination to make a positive difference in raising student outcomes. Keep an eye on Big Sky country.


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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.