Legends or Leaders

One of the more recent Thanksgiving traditions is the playing of The Game. The Ohio State / Michigan rivalry is one of the strongest in college football. On 22 occasions since 1935, the winner of this game has been crowned the Big Ten Conference champion. On 18 occasions, the winner won a national championship. The winner went to the Rose Bowl 34 times. At both schools, coaches are judged largely on how they perform in this game.

With the re-alignment of the Big Ten Conference in 2011, this game moved a week later. With the addition of Nebraska (and, in 2014, Rutgers and Maryland), the conference was divided into two divisions, Legends and Leaders. A conference championship game was added the first week of December. The season was expanded to 13 weeks. That puts the last game of the regular season on the fourth Saturday of November — Thanksgiving weekend.

Overall, Michigan leads the series 58-44. Michigan won the first game in 1897. In fact, Ohio State didn’t win until the 16th meeting of the two teams in 1919. In the first 25 games, Michigan was 19-4-2. Their dominance of the rivalry was legendary.

The last dozen years have been tough on the Wolverines, though. They’ve only won twice since Jim Tressel took over as the Buckeyes’ head coach in 2001. Ohio State has outscored Michigan 305-226 (not counting the vacated 2010 game). In the same time period, they’ve won the Big Ten Conference six times, been ranked among the top ten college football teams seven times, and had an overall record of 112-28. Clearly, any way you look at it, the Buckeyes are leaders in college football.

It’s fitting, then, that the Michigan Wolverines are in the Legends division of the Big Ten Conference, while the Ohio State Buckeyes are in the Leaders division. Both teams fit those names pretty well.

But who would you rather be? Admittedly, I’m a bit biased. But lately, it’s been a lot more fun being a Buckeye. I could draw parallels to the Cleveland Browns — clearly a “Legend” team that has been anything but a leader over the last 20 years — but we’ll stick with the college football metaphor. Or, better yet, let’s move away from football entirely.

I work for a school district that has “legend” written all over it. Their motto is “where fine education is a heritage.” They pride themselves in the tradition of excellence established by the schools. Their students have been recognized by the National Merit program for 55 consecutive years. In the 13 years that we’ve had school district report cards in Ohio, they’ve missed only one point, and have never failed to achieve the highest rating available. This is an outstanding school district by any measure that’s ever been thrown at it.

But are they leaders?

Sometimes I wonder if past success is a hindrance to future performance. We have proven methods for producing quality students. Why do we need to change? Our students get into great schools. They have tremendous success when they leave us.

All right. Sure. We don’t have a lot of project-based learning. And maybe our assessments are geared toward the “remembering” level of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy. But we use technology. A lot. It provides reading and math and science instruction at the elementary levels. It helps with math facts and phonemic awareness. It’s used in a number of places in our response to intervention model. Plus, the students are learning about technology along the way, right? In fact, this year we’re using netbooks in 23 classrooms instead of textbooks. That opens up a whole new world of possibilities. And don’t even get me started on all the cool things we’re doing with iPads.

And what about those 21st century skills you keep talking about? We’ve been doing that for years. Problem solving? Sure. We do that. We give our students all kinds of problems. Collaboration? We’ve had our students working in groups for generations now. They work together on lots of projects. Communication skills? We turn out some very good writers. And our students are not strangers to oral presentations (with PowerPoint, I might add). And there’s plenty of time for our students to express their creativity in our fine and performing arts programs at all grade levels. We have it covered. Really.

Sure. Portfolios don’t play a huge role in our students’ lives. And we don’t really do much with inquiry. But we’re flipping our classrooms, so the teachers aren’t lecturing so much (at least in school). Some teachers are using Moodle to organize student work. We’re using professional learning communities to give our teachers — our professional educators — the time and the freedom to collaborate around better student learning.

How could anyone argue that we’re not leaders?

One of the problems with the legend status is that you have to maintain it. It’s not exceptional that our students do well. It’s expected. After 55 years, if we don’t have a National Merit recognized student, something must be wrong. If our gymnastics team doesn’t win a state title for the tenth consecutive year, someone must have dropped the ball. If the College Board doesn’t recognize us for outstanding Advanced Placement performance, we must be slipping.

I said a decade ago that innovation will not happen in this school district until the test scores go down. That’s not entirely true. We’ve done some innovative things, and have followed others’ best practices. But most of that effort has been focused on student performance on the measures that make us legend. There’s been little effort in becoming leaders.

We’re approaching a crossroads though. With the introduction of common core and the new evaluation system for teachers, the game is changing. Our schools will be challenged to develop higher order thinking skills like analysis, synthesis, and creation. The high stakes tests will be less about recall of information and more about how students can combine ideas to create new things and solve real problems. Teachers will undergo a change in professional practice, developing their own learning communities and restructuring assessment to maximize student growth. This is going to happen everywhere. But the leaders will get there first.

We can be among them, if the legend doesn’t get in the way.

Photo credit: Joe Tordiff on Flickr.

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