Tag: Capacity Building

Seeing Through and Beyond

Seeing Through and Beyond

Reading Time: 4 minutes

I just opened an email from a colleague asking me if I could help her find an article she needed for her work with local district administrators across the state. She was looking for The Singular Power of One Goal (Sparks, 1999) to encourage superintendents and principals to consider the importance of establishing a focused school improvement plan. After locating the article in my files and sending it off, I poured a cup of coffee and re-read this familiar work. The article, featuring an interview with Emily Calhoun, is just as current today as it was twelve years ago, and the message is more important than ever.

Dr.Calhoun is a national expert and author who supports schools, districts and state agencies in designing and implementing school reforms that focus on instruction, curriculum and assessment. In this publication, Emily reminds readers of the importance of setting goals sharply focused on student learning. She contends that one powerful student learning goal is sufficient for a school staff to work on. Having too many goals makes it difficult for educators to work collectively to study teaching practices and results. Focusing on one powerful goal enables teams of teachers to engage in highly focused professional learning, dig into the external knowledge base, thoroughly examine student data, and to carefully study the implementation of strategies identified by the faculty.

One of the most important concepts put forward by Emily in the interview is called “seeing through and beyond,” which is a process of identifying all the changes that will be required to accomplish the goal by looking through the goal to the student performances that are expected. The next step is to determine what teacher behaviors in curriculum, instruction, and assessment are needed to promote the desired student behaviors. Continuing the process, the faculty must see right through the teacher behaviors to what the principal and central office need to do. Seeing through and beyond enables program implementers to make better use of data, to design comprehensive staff development, to employ technical assistance and leadership, and to make critical decisions about the effective use of time and resources. A singular goal helps the faculty to focus and to push through to address the things that everyone must be working on to fully accomplish the goal. Of course, limiting the focus of a school’s improvement plan to a single goal is not easily done and achieving the goal is not that simple, and Dr. Calhoun comments on the many barriers and challenges.

When the article came out twelve years ago, districts were struggling to comply with NCLB and having difficulty managing the expectations to meet student achievement goals in multiple subject areas at the same time. Today, districts are still struggling to figure out how to design reforms that accomplish everything that is expected of them, with even fewer resources. The concept of seeing through and beyond is intriguing to think about in our current context.

Schools are being expected to adjust to newly revised student learning standards, modify curriculum, improve formative assessment processes, add more summative assessments, apply new technologies for both classroom and organizational purposes, implement new data management stems, engage parents more fully, respond to revised teaching standards, add new teacher and leader evaluation procedures, deliver intensive professional development, reform hiring and retention practices …and the list goes on.

How might applying the idea of “seeing through and beyond” to policy development change this picture? What if school leaders and policy makers started the policy making process by considering how the policy would enable districts and schools to focus on fewer priorities rather than adding more. Just as school leaders should look through the learning goal and the desired student performance to consider all the actions needed at various levels of the system, policy makers need to see beyond the specific actions and immediate consequences of the policies and reforms they are promulgating. Are there protocols that could help leaders to think about how their policies affect student learning and how they change the behaviors of teachers, principals, central office staff, and other role groups at all levels of the system? Is there a way to consider whether the policies are likely to lead to systemic changes that yield improved practices in instruction and assessment with enough fidelity to the design of the innovation and with enough teaches to make a difference? Reforms where innovations are done incorrectly or partially by many teachers or reforms that are fully implemented by only a small percentage of the teachers responsible for instruction are not going to yield the intended outcomes.

There are processes available to help planners to see through and beyond the policy goal. The new field of implementation science offers strategies for increasing fidelity and ways of accomplishing full scale replication across a large system. The work of Dean Fixsen and the National Implementation Network give policy makers and practitioners a way to intentionally explore and adopt the innovation, consider the various organizational complexities and the context that contributes to the success or failure of an implementation, and address both expected and unexpected barriers to putting a reform in place. Attending to the factors of implementation early in the planning process by using implementation science would give reformers tools they need to increase the likely hood that the policies they advance will make a difference.

In her article from over a decade ago, Emily advised that it takes both leadership and willpower to face the challenges of school reform. It will take leadership to intentionally use today’s implementation science and other processes to “see through and beyond”. It will take will power to narrow the focus of reforms, to selectively abandon projects and reforms that aren’t working, to eliminate barriers to reforms that are likely to accomplish goals of improved teaching and learning and to target actions to the ultimate goal – student learning.

Sparks, D.(1999). The singular power of one goal: Action researcher narrows focus to broaden effectiveness. JSD, Winter, 54-58. Retrieved from http://www.learningforward.org/news/jsd/calhoun201.cfm

Image from Flickr user: Kristin Mckee

Why Teacher Diversity Matters

Why Teacher Diversity Matters

Reading Time: 5 minutes

When I first became a teacher, honestly, I didn’t think race mattered.  As a child who grew up in single-parent, low-income household, when I first graduated college, I felt I was the “model” of the American Dream.  As a homeowner, mother, wife, college graduate, there were many reasons for why I didn’t challenge the paradigm that I was the exception.

Yet, as I entered into my first teaching jobs and even more importantly as I moved into graduate school and reflected more on my background and experiences, I learned to see the privileges I benefited from, including, coming from a family where my great-grandmother and her siblings were college educated, and that my mother, raised in a middle-class household taught me to see our poverty as an anomaly which I was duty-bound to overcome. How did this occur?  First through personal experience.

In my first teaching job, I taught in a school in a small mostly rural area that was not too far from a large naval installation.  As a result, our school had more diversity than most in the area.  Among our demographics were Samoan students, who by-and-large were affiliated in one way or another with the Navy.  In my third period class, of the 16 or so students (as a writing class, we had a classroom cap of 19 students), over a quarter of my students were Samoan, with a couple of African American students while the rest were White.  As the year progressed, I was concerned because half of the students struggled, most of all my Samoan and Black students.  They were disaffected, uninterested, and seemed to resist even the slightest amount of rigor.  When I engaged my colleagues to inquire about ideas regarding the different approaches, insights into the kids and their backgrounds (I did not live in the community), and additional supports for my instruction, many times I was told things like: not every student will pass; they are failing themselves, you are not failing them; you’re doing everything that you can.  For me, these were insufficient answers.  Why were my students failing?  Why was it such a struggle to help them find a way into the course and why were these efforts failing them?

In contrast was my second period class, many of whom were in band and/or orchestra, many of whom were passing with high As and Bs, almost all of whom were White, with a few Asian (non-Samoan) students.  When I asked others about students’ behaviors, because often I found students challenged my authority, or in some cases tried to make me “look” stupid, I was told to expect them to challenge and that as high achieving students, though annoying and at times not respectful, that was simply a characteristics these kids brought to school with them.  My question always was what is the difference between these two sets of kids?  Would they ever tolerate the same behaviors and approaches to the classroom from students in my third period class?  How did the differences in the ways we interacted with the students, as well as our expectations for them impact their performance and overall interactions in school?  Don’t all kids want to be successful?  Didn’t they all have ambitions and dreams, even if they didn’t share them with me?  If so, why would we see behaviors and interactions differently for one group and not another?  Didn’t they all deserve the same opportunity to fulfill their dreams and ambitions, and wasn’t that indeed my job to help them try?  I didn’t find the answers.  Instead I found an ample amount of labels to describe students, most of whom are minority, some of whom grew up in poverty, some others of whom may be labeled with a behavioral disability, and many of whom are disciplined and suspended in school.  To be clear, this is does not only apply to students of color.  Any student who does not fit the mode of behavior and expectations, which differ at the different levels of school: elementary, middle school/junior high, and high school, are caught in a web of school marginalization that sometimes leads to failure and/or drop out.

As Arne Duncan said in the fall of 2010, it’s important to have a diverse workforce in the classroom that reflects the diversity of our nation.  In many cases this is racial/ethnic and even language diversity.  In many other cases this includes gender.   My understanding of this came years after I stepped out of the classroom.

In 2001, at the end of my first year in my second teaching job, I left the K-12 classroom a few years after I entered.  Essentially, I stopped teaching because not only were my students unable to handle the racial tension that having their first Black teacher presented, but my school and more importantly my school district had no idea how to support me in this transition.  When I sought assistance, I received none.  When I complained about my principal’s handling of the situation, first and foremost I was told it was not racial, though I was the only Black teacher in a teaching staff of over 100, and that he was simply a bad principal…allowed to keep his job while he threatened mine.  My response, go to graduate school.

In the intervening years, I have learned that teaching and learning is profoundly a social event.  At the base of this event are all of the assumptions, stereotypes, beliefs and values that we each, student and teacher, brings into the classroom and that this does not apply only to the subject of instruction, but to the nature of what is means to be “teacher” and “student” and how fluid these roles and definitions are as they interact with our understandings of what it means to “learn” and to “teach.”

When we have implicit or explicit lower expectations those are communicated.  When we ignore the tensions of having someone “in charge” when people typically see them as “those who take orders,” that also makes a difference.  What minority teachers can (because not all do) bring to the classroom is a better understanding of the social, psychological, and personal stakes that minority students are presented with when they enter the classroom.  To learn is a risk.  Not only must students trust that the teachers will guide them with the students’ own best interest at heart, but there is always the fear of losing or moving away from those who are familiar whether they include family, language, or culture, and in that, students also risk elements of their own identity in an education system that continues to maintain a colorblind paradigm.  As a social event, we are all subtly and not, impacted by the relationships we develop and “teaching” and “learning” that occurs.  To actively and implicitly learn that you are a member of a group that has historically occupied the bottom rungs of society, necessarily means that you learn that you are of lesser value.  To overcome this, minority teachers can help to dispel the myths, stereotypes, and assumptions that White and middle class teachers bring into the classroom about those children who are not like themselves.  They can also better explicitly teach students how to connect to a curriculum that often marginalizes if not entirely excludes them,[1] the contributions that minority groups have made to the founding and strengthening of this country and in turn the contributions that today’s students of color can make to us all.  These are certainly not elements that appear on a standardized test, yet they are important, nonetheless.  Lastly, as Sonia Nieto’s wide body of work on “multicultural education” points out, all children want to see our eyes light up when they enter the classroom.  Isn’t that our responsibility to show all students?



[1] In this time of celebrating Thanksgiving and the upcoming holidays, consider what we are celebrating.  In the case of Thanksgiving, it’s important to recognize that is not a celebration for all.  In the case of Native populations (whether they identify as Native American or American Indians) we are celebrating the impending demise, intentional and accidental, to entire populations of people in the service of building a country literally on the backs of enslaved and impoverished people of color, who for the most part, were not even considered citizens.

Photograph (cc)

Willing to Learn:  Reactions to President Obama’s Back-to-School Speech from Finn

Willing to Learn: Reactions to President Obama’s Back-to-School Speech from Finn

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Last week on September 28, 2011, President Obama addressed the students of the nation from Benjamin Bannecker Academic High School in Washington, D.C.  This was his third annual back-to-school address to the nation’s students and the second one I watched with my son, Finn.  Finn is in first grade and will soon be seven.  For the first time, this year he was old enough to know that the President was speaking to him and his classmates.  It was truly enlightening for me to sit with him this year and hear what the President had to say from the perspective of a six-year-old.

His class had spoken about the speech at school and he brought home the beautiful picture you see here, complete with the President standing alongside the White House.  When we sat down to watch the speech he told me that he didn’t know the President of the United States had time to talk to a bunch of kids, but that he heard Mr. Obama (as he calls him) say that he and his class were really important and needed to work hard.  We sat back on the sofa, me with my notebook, and Finn with a stash of homemade playing cards he has been working on.  We listened together, occasionally looking over at each other to gauge our reactions.

Of course, what I heard as I listened was different than what Finn heard.  He spent some time fumbling with his cards, fidgeting in his chair and looking at the ceiling as I took notes.  During the speech, I could feel myself nodding in agreement to the calls for students to work hard and take responsibility for education; I felt called to action as the President spoke about making America’s schools as strong as they could be; I was emboldened to think more about reforms to our system as he talked about rising as a country to once again have the highest percentage of young people with a college degree; I felt pride in the accomplishments of the young entrepreneurs he used as examples; as a parent, I felt obligated and determined to make sure my children get a great education; and I felt determined to make sure all the children of this country have that same opportunity.

When the speech finished, Finn and I had a conversation about what we watched that went something like this:

Me:  You said President Obama thinks that you and your classmates are really important?  Why might he think that?

Finn:  There’s two reasons, I think.  We have to do our very best and if he didn’t tell us to we might forget.  And our teachers work really hard, even harder than I thought.  If we don’t work hard for them, then they would just work hard for nothing.

Me:  I think you understand a lot about what he was saying and you are probably right about those two reasons.  We want to please our teachers and work hard like they do and it is helpful to have the President remind us of something we should do.  Can you think of some reasons why working hard would be important for you and your classmates at school too?

Finn:  Well…you remember when I didn’t know what addition meant and I got mad when you made me play Addition Bingo.  I learned all about addition at school and now when we play I always win.  Oh, and the President said we have to go to college and get jobs.  I am going to be a race car driver and you said I had to know how to read to drive.”

Me (laughing):  That is true.  I am glad you watched with me.  I never would have thought the President’s speech might be relevant to your plans to become a race car driver.

Finn:  You know what else the President said, Mom.  He said that school is about trying new things.  I am going to try new things and when I don’t do them right I will just try again.  Next time we have art I am going to listen to what the teacher says and not just work on my comic book.

As we turned off the computer screen we had been watching on, I felt proud that he was thinking about school and learning as positive opportunities—and, I must admit, I felt a little disappointed that he hadn’t been listening in art.

But the thing I took away from that conversation wasn’t something that made me proud as a parent or something the President said.  It was the amazing ability children have to try new things.  Learning addition or the basics of calculus, learning that a group of letters is a sound and that sound is a word, or learning the proper technique for a great jump shot are all big, sometimes scary steps and they require faith in your teachers, coaches and school leaders.   And they require a leap into the unknown that stems from a belief we all have to have to grow up:  Change is necessary to grow.

Change is necessary for growth in our educational system too.  As we work towards reforming educational policies and practices to create stronger schools and to support our teachers and students, we have to be willing to make big changes and to learn the lessons offered from past experiences, new research and other types of systems from around the country and the globe.

So as I continue with my work here at West Wind and at home, I will take a cue from Finn and his classmates and pledge to be willing to learn and push myself and my thinking to new levels, even if that makes me uncomfortable sometimes.

Instructional Rounds: A Powerful Reform Strategy

Instructional Rounds: A Powerful Reform Strategy

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Collaboration, networking, school improvement, instructional support, a collaborative learning culture, knowledge building, and rigorous and relevant teaching—these are all attributes and practices school reformers strive for by awarding funds, promulgating rules, instituting strategic plans, launching training initiatives, and extending promises to stakeholders. One approach that truly advances all of these attributes and practices is the instructional rounds process – “an explicit practice that is designed to bring the discussion of instruction directly into the process of school improvement.”[1] Instructional rounds are adapted from a routine used in medical education in which interns, residents, and supervising physicians visit patients, observe, discuss evidence for diagnoses, engage in dialogue to analyze the evidence, and share ideas for possible treatments. Educational rounds brings networks of educators together using protocols and routines to articulate a theory of action, identify a problem of practice, observe classroom instruction, debrief with colleagues to analyze any patterns that emerge, and recommend the next level of work to help the school achieve their desired goals.[2]

Richard Elmore, Lee Teitel, Liz City, and their colleagues from Harvard have developed processes, protocols, and technical assistance resources for establishing networks to implement instructional rounds. They have worked closely with networks and district leaders to apply the practice of rounds, refine the model based on lessons learned, and to expand the community of learners who are able to facilitate the rounds process. Examples of these networks include the Cambridge Leadership Network, the Connecticut Superintendents’ Network, the Ohio Leadership Collaborative, and the Iowa Leadership Academy Superintendents’ Network. I have had the privilege of being a member of the Iowa Leadership Academy Superintendents’ Network – an experience that has allowed me to participate in intensive training provided by Dr. Elmore and the Harvard team, engage as both a member on various rounds teams and as a facilitator of the rounds process in several Iowa school districts, and to continuously learn from my fellow rounds facilitators through our Network meetings.

The instructional rounds model seems to be gaining more traction and is recently being advanced as a model for  school leaders and  teachers as a means to transform educator practice.  What I have noticed in my work with the rounds model in Iowa is that it offers tremendous benefit to the Network members and to the participating schools.  The process focuses the district’s efforts on, what Elmore calls, the instructional core. Engaging in rounds builds the capacity of superintendents to recognize quality instruction, enhances trust among Network members, increases their willingness to take on the challenges of influencing change, and leads to a culture of inquiry that enhances professional learning.

On a cautionary note, I have also noticed some aspects of the model that anyone aspiring to adopt this approach should consider.  Some of the lessons learned from my own work with rounds and from sharing experiences with other facilitators in Iowa are listed below.

  • Though the steps for conducting rounds may seem straightforward, in practice, it is a very difficult program for participants to implement.
  • Establishing a network takes an extraordinary amount of work and leadership. In Iowa, Bonnie Boothroy of School Administrators of Iowa and several of the Area Education Agency Chiefs have committed extensive amounts of time and effort to establish and sustain Iowa’s Network.
  • Being a member of a network takes a lot of time, commitment to learn, and perseverance to follow through and apply new learning. It is not a model for anyone who wants their professional growth to be quick and easy. Becoming a facilitator is an extremely valuable professional learning experience, but the work of developing the skills needed to support a network and run the rounds process can’t be shortchanged.  The “faint of heart” should not apply.
  • New capacity building is needed to do this work. School leaders shouldn’t consider running rounds without background knowledge. Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning a well written book by City, Elmore, Fiarman, and Teitel (2009) is a great resource, but just reading the book is not a substitute for learning how to conduct rounds from those who have had extensive direct experience.
  • Going to scale across multiple districts and running rounds with fidelity is a constant effort and requires ongoing vigilance. Our network meets several times a year to address how best to support the rounds process and we continuously confront issues that have the potential to seriously domesticate the delivery of the model.

It takes a community of committed practitioners for the networks and rounds process to work well. Isolated implementers who just pick up the book are likely to implement the model partially or incorrectly. Plus, the experience of engaging in collective learning in an organized way will serve school leaders well as they work to establish learning communities in their schools.

School reformers might want to take a look at this promising and exciting approach to school reform. While they should be excited about the potential, reformers also need to be cautious about selecting a model that is demanding to implement.  To fulfill the promise of this approach, school leaders will need to make a serious commitment to engage deeply in the work and be intentional about fully learning the model from experts. The policy makers and administrators who are responsible for designing the roll-out of the rounds networks must attend to the all the factors that are necessary to advance  a model to scale and be vigilant about expecting careful replication of the model.

[1] City, E., Elmore, R. , Fiarman, S. and Teitel, L. (2009). Instructional rounds in education: A network approach to improving teaching and learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

[2] Ibid.

Fullan Challenges Reformers to Think About Whole System Reform

Fullan Challenges Reformers to Think About Whole System Reform

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Seminar Series 204: Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform The aspiration to “close the gap” in test scores between students of color and whites has been the focus of public policy makers for some time.  Policy makers have established the expectation that schools must do more to ensure that all students of every income, race/ethnicity, language background, and disability status graduate from high school ready for college and a career. Schools and the institutions that support schools are under pressure to improve the achievement of all students by improving teacher quality, providing information and supports to parents, establishing standards and assessments, providing intensive supports and interventions to low performing schools, and other reform strategies. There has been an increasing emphasis on closing the gap by improving the quality of teachers and leaders through reforms to educator effectiveness systems including preservice preparation, teacher and leader evaluation, and professional growth systems.  In a recent publication, Michael Fullan challenges reformers to think carefully about the way to set the course for these reforms.  Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform describes how school leaders and policy makers are selecting the wrong drivers to accomplish the changes needed to increase achievement and close the achievement gap. The article prescribes an alternative set of drivers that have been found to be more effective in accomplishing, what Fullan calls, the moral imperative of raising the bar for all students and closing the gap for lower performing groups. For all students to attain the higher order skills and competencies required to be successful world citizens, drivers need to be pursued as part of a coherent whole and be implemented in a highly interactive way.

As part of the recent National Summit on Educator Effectiveness hosted by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) State Consortium on Educator Effectiveness, Fullan discussed the concept of effective drivers and the need for whole system reform in a webinar and a keynote address. He challenged the reformers in audience to think about whether the priorities they have set will:

1. foster intrinsic motivation of teachers and students;

2. engage educators and students in continuous improvement of instruction and learning;

3. inspire collective or team work; and

4. affect all teachers and students – 100 per cent?[1]

I believe that the initial response to Fullan’s presentation has been striking. Individuals who were part of the Summit and read his article are now asking questions such as, “Are we aiming at the whole system or tinkering with selected elements?” “What are the drivers we are investing our time and money in, and should these be replaced with more powerful drivers?” “How can we be more collaborative in our work?” Who are the right stakeholders?”

Some questions I thought of include: If ensuring that all students are able to compete in a global economy is really our goal, what can we learn from Fullan about designing reforms that take on issues of inequity? What would it take to launch a whole-system reform that pushes the deeper changes needed to make a difference for those students who are currently not learning at the level needed to be successful in a changing world? What might happen if we involved more teachers of color in leadership roles for designing reforms? How can we capture the voices of students of color to help design learning experiences that are more motivating and have more real world applications?  What factors contribute to collective team work in a diverse workforce?  How might implementing  the drivers Fullan talks about make a difference in the graduation rates, particularly among Black African American males?

I am looking forward to ongoing discussion about this publication. I am hopeful that it will be the catalyst for important changes in the way we go about influencing the work of policy change in the future.

U.S. Department of Education. (2010).Blueprint for reform: The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development.

[1] Fullan, M. (2011). Choosing the wrong drivers for whole system reform.

Centre for Strategic Education Seminar Series Paper, 204. East Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

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