Jim Sisney Leading B.A. Back to Basics

Contributing Editor

READ, WRITE AND LISTEN: Broken Arrow Superintendent Jim Sisney wants his students to learn the basics so they can maximize their learning experiences and become more able to compete in the market place both domestically and internationally.

DAVID JONES for Broken Arrow Express

The upcoming school year and the prospect of leading nearly 16,000 students toward their academic goals excites Broken Arrow Superintendent of Schools Jim Sisney. The prospect of what’s in store three or four years down the line excites him even more. Broken Arrow students, he says, are going back to basics in a way never before envisioned.

“We’re going to give our students the skills to access the content and instruction given to them by their teachers,” says Sisney.
To reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic, he wants to add listening and a different way of getting information out of a book.

“We teach students to read through about the third grade. After that they’re often left on their own with formal reading training until SAT or ACT preparation. There are levels of reading beyond the mechanics we teach the students to read the book. Getting the most from a book, learning HOW to read a book, isn’t taught in later classes.”

As a result of this lack of training, Sisney says, colleges are forced to spend much of a student’s first two years just in remedial education trying to get them up to college speed.

“We have not held the students accountable for getting the skills necessary to access the information they’re given. We have to improve on this.”

Sisney points to a Detroit school study on how students accumulate knowledge. Reading accesses only nine percent of a student’s knowledge, according to the study. Writing brings in another 16 percent. Thirty-five percent comes from interactive speaking and 40 percent from listening.

The listening, he says, is symptomatic of what can be wrong in education. “Eighty-five percent of class time is spent with the teacher giving what is essentially a series of lectures, but studies show the student only retains about a quarter of that. The students have to acquire listening skills as well as reading skills. We’re going to work on that.”

The population of the Broken Arrow school system, like those in Owasso and Bixby, is exploding. The once sleepy little farming community connected to Tulsa only by a series of minor county roads now boasts 14 elementary schools serving kindergarten through the fifth grade, a middle school for the sixth through eighth grades, two intermediate high schools for ninth and tenth grades and a senior high school. A school that will house strictly fourth and fifth graders is on the drawing boards.

There is an alternative school for those who have trouble learning in a traditional setting and a Margaret Hudson program for young mothers. These help people who once fell between the academic cracks, but Sisney believes the world is changing and education must adapt to meet new needs.

“A lot of the jobs that people used to be able to count on are being outsourced to other countries where the labor can be done cheaper. Even what we would once consider ‘professional’ positions, such as accountants, are being challenged. A branch of an American company in Sri Lanka can either import an accountant from America or it can send one of Sri Lanka’s best and brightest to America to be trained as an accountant and returned to Sri Lanka where they won’t be paid on the American scale. That’s a threat that didn’t exist two decades ago.”

The answer, Sisney says, is not to simply throw more money at the problem. “I have my problems with the methodology of the Detroit study but I think it’s on to something. This year our students will be schooled in how to get information from a book and how to listen to experts in such a way the information sinks in. We are going to be doing that for all age groups from kindergarten to high school seniors.”

Doesn’t that mean a lot of teachers are going to have to change their teaching techniques?

Of course it does, Sisney says, but the major emphasis will be on getting the students to understand the teachers delivery.

“We must expect more from the students but we must give them the tools to meet those expectations. “I’m afraid that in 25 years or even less the kind of education we’re providing now won’t be producing the kind of labor force America will need to stay on top.

“We’re going to try to start changing the way students study this year. By three or four years I expect to really see positive results.

“I’m not alone in this. Bill and Melinda Gates have given $60 million toward revamping education, but I think some of their focus is shortsighted. They promote smaller high schools but they overlook the simple elements of learning how to learn.”
In the meantime Sisney is also concerned about the here and now.

“Broken Arrow is working on a unique model in the role of enhancing work force. We have created a partnership with the city of Broken Arrow and the Chamber of Commerce to do our part in economic development.

We are working to see that the kids coming out of our school system who don’t want to immediately go on to higher education will be trained for existing jobs in the community. I don’t think any other school district in Oklahoma has a co-operative arrangement with business like we have.”

Updated 07-26-2007

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