Teachers will tell you that classroom grades are meant to be a tangible measure of a student’s progress in the program. While students may fret over a test grade, teachers know that the grade is only one of many tools used to gauge each student’s areas of strength, weakness and improvement. With that knowledge, the student identifies areas that need further study. In the past, agriculture teachers have had no way to uniformly compare or grade their programs and FFA chapters to others in the nation. Now, with the 10-state rollout of FFA’s National Quality Program Standards (NQPS), they do.
According to Nina Crutchfield, local program success (LPS) specialist for the National FFA Organization, “The purpose of the NQPS is to 1) provide a concrete foundation, as a profession, that illustrates what a high-quality agricultural education program looks like, 2) provide guidance to new teachers so they know the profession’s expectations at the beginning of their career, and 3) provide the teachers with a tool for making standards-based improvements. NQPS is strictly for improvement purposes only.”
After using the NQPS to evaluate their programs, many teachers in the rollout states have identified and are working to fix areas of weakness within their program. Three teachers agreed to speak with Making a Difference about the changes they’re making in their programs.
Gary Mattheis, Sweet Grass County Schools, Big Timber, Mont.
Mattheis has been an agriculture teacher for 18 years and felt very good about his school’s program. After using the NQPS to evaluate his program last year, Mattheis said, “It was an eye-opener. You think you’re covering all the bases, but you find out you aren’t covering them as well as you should be.” The evaluation revealed that his Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) program needed improvements and the overall program needed to have and use an advisory council. Crutchfield explained that one of the goals of the NQPS is to “illustrate the importance of utilizing partnerships to create a high-quality agricultural education program.”
In Sweet Grass County, Mattheis said that “SAEs are so broad in scope and can encompass so many different things. An SAE can be as simple as showing an animal at the fair to having an agriculture-related job to something entrepreneurial such as breeding animals or raising hay as a cash crop." After choosing an SAE, the student enters into an agreement with his parents and advisor. In January, students turn their record books for the previous 12 months in to Mattheis. In the interim, Mattheis reviews the record books when he makes site visits. For the most part, Mattheis said, “The kids are pretty good at keeping records. Most of my kids are in both 4-H and FFA, so they’re used to keeping records; but some kids are a little tougher because not all my agricultural education students belong to the FFA.”
One of the reasons that Mattheis is focusing on SAEs under the NQPS is because he believes good record keeping is an important key to student success. “Record keeping helps kids keep track of how they spend their time and money. SAEs allow students who are entrepreneurial to get a basic start on tracking finances. Plus, when all students are keeping good, up-to-date records, then filling out the paperwork to earn FFA state degrees is as simple as transferring information from one form to another.”
The National Quality Program Standards are very high, something Mattheis acknowledged. “The NQPS guidelines extend into the classroom. The criteria are pretty tough to try to attach to all students in your classroom and not just FFA members. Getting the non-FFA kids to maintain and understand the importance of maintaining good records can become a nemesis, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.”
The advisory council won’t be involved in SAEs, but Mattheis is looking forward to their input. “I’m looking forward to getting insight into different approaches. I’m anxious to see the difference between what I require and their vision of what should be required.” Sweet Grass has had an advisory council in the past, but they haven’t used the group to its full potential. Mattheis hopes to have a 5-member, staggered-term council in place later this month. Plans are already underway for the FFA advisors and advisory council to develop a needs assessment tool with a focus on the program curriculum and the FFA shop. The advisory council will then review the assessment yearly, giving them a chance to correct and improve the agricultural education program.
Crutchfield said that the NQPS aren’t intended to increase teacher workload. Mattheis anticipates that in the short run following NQPS will “mean a little more work departmentally, but in the long run, working through an advisory council will ease the teacher/advisor workload because the council will be able to look at the overall picture.”
Patricia Adcock, Stuttgart High School, Stuttgart, Ark.
A 15-year Ag Ed veteran, Adcock can’t say enough about how the National Quality Program Standards are going to improve her program. “NQPS is going to provide consistency among chapters across the nation. We’re using NQPS as an assessment tool to find out where we’re strong, where we’re weak and what we need to do to fix any weak areas. NQPS will help us make our program better for the kids. Before, we had no rubric or anything tangible to assess where we were. With NQPS, we can evaluate our program without prejudices.”
After completing the NQPS, Adcock and her co-teacher, Barry Rogers, identified marketing and facilities as two weak spots in their program.
“We thought we were doing really well with our marketing, but it turned out to be a weak spot,” said Adcock. “Our marketing efforts used to be mainly word-of-mouth, but now we’re taking advantage of technology by creating a Web site for our chapter, maintaining a presence on Facebook, and gathering student cell phone numbers so that we can text message them updates and reminders.” The need for a media focus became clear when the chapter realized that they really need to take their message to 5th and 6th graders so that “they’ll be aware of FFA and Ag Ed before they’re distracted by other opportunities.”
The Stuttgart program also sees a need to market themselves to non-traditional students while keeping its traditional student base. Adcock commented, “We need more females, more minorities, more diversity. The more diversity in the program, the greater the diversity in the types of agricultural careers that students go on to after high school.”
Adcock and Rogers have used NQPS to create some unique marketing strategies:
- Pumpkin Patch rescue: When Adcock heard that school budget cuts were going to force elementary students to forgo their annual trip to the pumpkin patch, she immediately thought about the pumpkin patch she planted with her horticulture class. “My FFA students will be delivering pumpkins to the elementary school and will also give a presentation about the pumpkins’ growth and germination cycle. The kids get their pumpkins, and we foster a relationship with students in those earlier grades.”
- Tulip planting: During the school’s Red Ribbon week, her students visited each 4th grade classroom and talked with the students about tulips. Each student was then paired with a 4th grader and together they planted a bulb.
- Greenhouse and special needs: Junior high students go to the high school’s greenhouse and volunteer with special needs kids.
- Biodiesel fuel presentations: Students submitted a proposal to the state to give presentations on the process of making biofuels, which is one of the student-run programs. The proposal was accepted and students are presenting community workshops at community colleges up to 85 miles away.
To encourage community involvement, Adcock looks to her students. “The kids know what the community needs. They know before the teachers whether something will work and how to fix it if it doesn’t.” The advisors are creating online surveys, and they’re putting up a “feedback box” to gather opinions from the community at large.
With so many exciting initiatives, the program’s facilities are lacking. Adcock admitted, “A lot of the agriculture department’s newer equipment has been purchased through the FFA chapter, not through the school district. The school district, though, has promised to upgrade our facilities. NQPS had minimum equipment standards, and we are working toward meeting those.” Ever the optimist, Adcock sees a teaching opportunity in having facilities in need of upgrade. “In the real world, you may not have everything you need, so you have to think outside the box about how to get it. It’s a real-world lesson that makes kids better ready to handle challenges later.”
All in all, Adcock feels that one of the biggest benefits of the NQPS is that it “gives us the opportunity to push responsibility back to the kids because they have to own the program, too. Initially, that will probably mean more work for me, but only because I need to break some bad habits. We advisors need to change some of the ways we think. But, the standards are going to work, and they will make our program stronger.”
Amy Green, Florien High School, Florien, La.
Amy Green followed in her father’s footsteps when she became an agriculture teacher. After a few years in the classroom, she left Louisiana and the school setting to work in an FFA field office. When her father retired after 31 years on the job, Green and her family returned to her hometown where she has filled her father’s shoes for the last three and a half years.
Green believes that NQPS will make her a better teacher. “With any field—and in agriculture teaching in particular—people can become complacent. We do the same things over and over without justification for what we’re doing. NQPS provides standards which, at times, push us; it provides tools that justify success or show shortcomings.”
After completing the NQPS assessment, Green decided to focus on marketing and experiential learning because “I realized I wasn’t doing justice to my students’ hard work by not pushing them to apply for awards. Also, we have a great chapter that does great things, but we’re not always good at sharing that with the community. These two focus areas will give us the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time.”
One excellent marketing tool is FFA’s Mother’s Day plant sale, which was started by Green’s father a number of years ago. Green explained, “Every child on our K-12 campus can come to one of our greenhouses and purchase a plant for Mother’s Day. The sale is great PR in the community, and it’s a great way to introduce younger children to FFA and agricultural education.”
Because all students on campus are aware of FFA early on, Green’s marketing efforts will be community focused. She believes that her newly-formed advisory council will be an invaluable marketing tool. “Our advisory board will have 12 members, one of whom is a newspaper reporter. The newspaper has always been very supportive of what we do, but time constraints haven’t always allowed me to call them. Hopefully, having a reporter on the council will take a layer out of our marketing efforts.”
Green also recognizes a need to use electronic media as a marketing tool. As the chapter works to build its website, Green sees an SAE opportunity for a student who would like to gain experience by creating, maintaining and updating the site.
Green noted that most of her students already had SAEs, but they weren’t formalized. As a direct result of NQPS, SAEs and appropriate record keeping will become a mandatory part of the curriculum this school year. With three working greenhouses and a blueberry orchard on campus, thriving poultry and forestry operations in the community, and a state park nearby, getting SAEs in place for students is fairly easy. Record keeping was proving problematic, though, because not all students have computers at home. Green solved the problem by giving students class time every Friday to electronically update their records in the agriculture department’s computer lab. Students turn their record books in to her for review every six weeks.
Louisiana’s agriculture teachers are on 12-month contracts, so Green can easily visit and monitor each student’s SAE to check on their growth and scope per the NQPS quality indicators. “One benefit of a small town is that you know most everybody, so I can talk frankly with their employers and encourage expansion of student responsibilities.”
All in all, Green felt that the standards are going to be very positive. The challenge, which many teachers understand, is getting out of the way. “NQPS will initially increase my workload, but implemented properly, it could reduce the amount on my plate.” Then with a laugh she added, “It’s the letting go that’s hard.”