Tag: Professional Development

Should Professional Learning be Required?

Should Professional Learning be Required?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I recently observed a conference room full of superintendents sitting in complete silence as they pondered a challenging question, “Should teachers be required to participate in professional learning?” Richard Elmore posed this question, and after what seemed like an uncomfortable amount of wait-time, a superintendent responded in an uncertain voice, “Yes.” The audience was engaged in learning how to improve student learning through the implementation of the Instructional Rounds approach and Elmore was pressing them to think about how to advance reforms that are likely to make a difference in improving student learning. Continue reading “Should Professional Learning be Required?”

Attendance as a Reform Agenda

Attendance as a Reform Agenda

Reading Time: 5 minutes

In the recent State of the Union address, President Obama challenged states to address the required age of school attendance. The President stated, “… when students don’t walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma.  When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better.  So tonight, I am proposing that every state — every state — requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.“

For the eighteen states that use sixteen years of age as the attendance requirement and the eleven states that require attendance until seventeen years of age, Obama’s expectation that they raise the age requirement is probably causing some lively discussions among school reformers.[1] The Education Week blog Obama Rekindles State Debates on Dropout Age by Lesli A. Maxwell sheds some light on this highly relevant topic.  According to Maxwell, experts on this issue contend that changing attendance laws will do little by itself to decrease national dropout rates and that without comprehensive strategies for making school engaging and relevant and for identifying and addressing early signs of dropping out, states and districts are not likely to have much success with increasing graduation rates.

The blog goes on to cite national statistics on dropout rates, stating that nationally 8.1 percent of people between 16 and 24 years of age are considered dropouts.  The blog fails to report on the graduation rates of students of color. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2007-2008 dropout rate for white students was 2.8 percent, with the Hispanic dropout rate at 6.0 percent, the Black dropout rate at 6.7 percent, and the American Indian/Alaska Native dropout rates at 7.3 percent.[2]

A study by the Schott Foundation for Public Education points out that only 47 percent of Black males graduate, while 78 percent of white male students graduate.[3]

President Obama’s advocacy to raise the required graduation rates and the points offered in the Education Week blog cause me to wonder about the students’ experiences on day-in and day-out basis. I contend that if what the student experiences everyday isn’t dramatically changed, having more of the same thing is not likely to improve the outcomes for students, even if they do stay in school longer. The Education Week piece does make the case that other strategies are needed beyond mandates for required years in school to make a difference in graduation rates. As an example of efforts underway to increase school attendance and improve graduation rates, New Hampshire reforms are presented as a case study. Paul Leather, New Hampshire’s Deputy Education Commissioner, stressed the importance of tackling the dropout problem by providing extended learning opportunities, creating multiple pathways to graduation, and making the state’s programs in career and technical education and adult education more accessible. New Hampshire’s data suggests that their approach is making head-way — the cohort rate for students who had dropped out of school (and did not earn a GED) was 3.3% in 2010-11 – down from 4.4% the previous year.  Interestingly, Maxwell cites a 2010 report by the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins that suggests that of the six states that increased the compulsory-attendance age between 2002 and 2008, only Nevada accomplished a decrease in graduation rates. Illinois and South Dakota saw an increase in their high school graduation rates.

I am reminded of the comments made by Richard Elmore of Harvard University. In various presentations, I have heard Dr. Elmore comment on his observations of classrooms that he believes are “excruciatingly boring”. He goes further by stating that educators have a moral responsibility to save students from being bored and disenfranchised by ensuring they are given engaging and challenging tasks. Anecdotally, I have personally visited many classrooms where students are politely engaged in lessons and tasks that are designed to address the expected standards and curriculum. The noteworthy commonality across these observations was that the students seemed bored and that the lessons and tasks were not particularly relevant or student focused.

Ethan Yazzie-Mintz, a scientist at the Center for Evaluation & Education Policy at Indiana University and director of the High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE) reports findings from the HSSSE annual survey of students’ perceptions about their school experience,  the learning environment , and their interactions with the school community. According to the 2009 analysis of this survey, students report that boredom is a major factor in deciding to drop out. The report lists these findings: “Two out of three respondents (66%) in 2009 are bored at least every day in class in high school; nearly half of the students (49%) are bored every day and approximately one out of every six students (17%) are bored in every class. Only 2% report never being bored, and 4% report being bored “once or twice.”[4]

Education policy makers may hope that, with the stroke of a pen, they can make a significant difference in the graduation rates by changing the policies that set the age of mandatory attendance. Keeping students in school longer does have some face validity, but as suggested by the states that have changed the mandatory age without results, it may not yield the quick- fix that is desired.  If students anticipate being bored and disappointed by what they are asked to learns as they walk through the school doors each day, just requiring more days may not be the best strategy. Providing learning experiences that are relevant, challenging, and connected to the real world beyond the classroom should be high priority for school reformers.  Particular attention must be paid to designing authentic learning experiences for all students of color and for black males, to make schools an engaging place where students choose to stay. These improvements will require changes to the curriculum and intensive professional growth for teachers and school leaders to learn new practices.  Additionally, working conditions in schools will need to be established to provide teachers with the time to plan and collaborate with each other as they develop dynamic and more personalized learning opportunities for students.

The Obama Administration provided this graphic on the costs of dropping out as part of the State of the Union presentation.[5] Considering the statistics on dropouts, along with the costs of dropping out, creates a sense of urgency to do something. Taking action to transform instructional practices and the learning students engage will accomplish far more than just extending the mandatory age of attendance. Improved teaching and learning will not just keep students in school; it will also prepare them for the world they will face when their K-12 years are over. Funding the more comprehensive reforms will be expensive, but the considering the cost of dropping out, the investment should be indisputable.

[1] Education Commission of States. (2010). Compulsory school age requirements. Retrieved from http://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/86/62/8662.pdf

[2] National Center for Education Statistics. (2007-08). Public school graduates and dropouts from the common core of data: School year 2007-2008.  IES Institute of Educational Sciences.  Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2010/graduates/findings.asp

[3] The Schott Foundation for Public Education. (2010). Yes we can: The Schott 50 state report on public education and black males 2010. Retrieved from http://blackboysreport.org/?page_id=14

[4] Yazzie-Mintz. E. (2009) Charting the path from engagement to achievement: A report on the 2009 high school survey of student engagement. Retrieved from http://ceep.indiana.edu/hssse/images/HSSSE_2010_Report.pdf

[5]  The White House. (2012). State of the union enhanced graphics. Retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2012/01/25/state-union-deep-dive

“We tried that, but…”

“We tried that, but…”

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I recently served as a process observer during a discussion about how to best support the central office leadership of a local school district as they planned school improvement efforts. The individuals who offered support to the district leaders commented on how frequently they heard these school leaders say, “We tried that, but…” followed by the discouraged refrain, “we didn’t get results.”

As an observer of those coaching the district, I wondered why they didn’t probe further. Whenever I hear “we-tried-that-but,” a series of questions comes to mind: What did you try to implement? How do you know teachers used the strategies? Did they use the strategy often enough for students to get the anticipated benefit? Did the teacher use the strategy long enough to change student learning? Did the teachers use the strategy or method the way it was intended or did they change it? What were the students’ responses to the changes in instruction? Were enough students engaged to make a difference in the results? If teachers struggled to use the strategy, why did they have difficulty? Did they need more professional development to fully understand the new practice? Did they have time to practice using the new approach and work with their colleagues to plan new lessons and discuss how to best use the practice in the classroom? Were the working conditions and culture safe for teachers to try newly learned skills? How were teachers involved in planning the roll-out of the effort? What role did principals and other school leaders play in supporting teachers’ application of new practices and removing barriers that teachers experience when trying something new?…among others.

I wonder how often school administrators and teachers have voiced disappointment about not getting the intended outcomes from various initiatives without looking further into the implementation of the effort. Without answering these and other questions about the implementation of a reform effort, it is not possible to make good decisions about what works or doesn’t work.

At another level, how often have state and national leaders said, “We tried that, but….”? Looking at implementation from a macro-level — reformers have advanced legislation, funded expensive reform agendas, pushed various curriculum and assessment models with the goal of improving student learning, established task forces, organized new departments, created new positions, and a myriad of other strategic actions. I suspect many were tried and abandoned, because the data indicated that student outcomes didn’t improve. It is impossible to tell if the innovation had the capacity to fulfill the promises intended by the policy makers without studying implementation. What was actually known about how widely the reforms being advanced through policy were implemented?

Implementation Science provides the understanding of systemic implementation practices needed to help local district leaders, as well as state and federal policy makers, to design and support reforms in ways that intentionally attend to the factors necessary to achieve full implementation. The National Implementation Research Network(NIRN) offers research and frameworks for understanding effective implementation processes. Educational reformers should study NIRN’s core implementation components and their conceptual model for designing and creating the conditions needed to operationalize and advance full implementation. Dean Fixsen and the other authors of the monograph Implementation Research: A Synthesis of the Literature (2005) state, “There is broad agreement that implementation is a decidedly complex endeavor, more complex than the policies, programs, procedures, techniques, or technologies that are the subject of the implementation efforts. Every aspect of implementation is fraught with difficulty, from system transformation to changing service provider behavior and restructuring organizational contexts.”[1] 

The lessons learned from implementation science should provide hope for reformers at all levels of the educational system who are struggling mightily with these challenges. Anyone listening to the often-cited mantra “We tried that, but…” should suggest they carefully study implementation and seek out these resources.

[1] Fixsen, D. L., Naoom, S. F., Blase, K. A., Friedman, R. M., & Wallace, F. (2005). Implementation research: A synthesis of the literature. Tampa, FL: University of South Florida, Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute, The National Implementation Research Network.

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.

How Adults Learn: What Do Reformers Need to Know?

How Adults Learn: What Do Reformers Need to Know?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The West Wind Education Policy web site describes our work in the area of knowledge building and professional development as being based on theories of andragogy–or adult learning. The study of adult learning theory and experience in designing and supporting professional development for educators has taught us a lot about the way teachers and school leaders learn when engaging in professional growth experiences. Andragogy theories suggest that adults need to learn experientially and to be actively involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction. We know that adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value. We know that experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for effective learning activities and that problem-centered learning rather than content-oriented learning is more meaningful to the adult. Educators, like all other adult learners bring with them a reservoir of experiences, but they also bring extensive doubts and fears to the educational process. Well-designed learning establishes an environment where each learner feels safe and supported, where the individual’s needs and uniqueness are honored, and where the participant’s abilities and life achievements are acknowledged and respected. A productive learning environment encourages experimentation and creativity, while fostering intellectual freedom.

Carrie Leana, a researcher from the University of Pittsburgh studied the influence of human and social capital in school settings. Her research suggests that social capital thrives in an atmosphere of mutual trust and collective practice. According to Leana, a school climate that is characterized by trust provides an environment where teachers routinely talk to each other, share the same norms, and hold strong agreement in their descriptions of their school’s culture. Her findings suggest that a trusting climate is more important than the teacher education level, teacher certification, or other human capital measures in predicting student achievement scores.

As federal, state, and local district leaders establish policies that seek to improve educator effectiveness, they are advancing requirements that are intended to change practices in human capital management. Reforms being considered aim at raising standards, ensuring that mentoring and induction supports are in place, offering quality professional development, and improving teacher preparation and performance evaluation systems. If these reforms are going to make a difference, the designers and implementers should consider how the intended and unintended consequences will impact the learning environment for educators. Those responsible for leading reforms should ask questions such as:

• Will reforms provide the infrastructure and the necessary funding to provide intensive professional development?
• Are there policies in place that allocate adequate time for professional growth and collaboration?
• Will performance review processes offer meaningful, accurate, and timely feedback in a way that enhances reflection and supports continuous growth in a safe culture?
• Are educator effectiveness systems designed to contribute to a culture of inquiry, trust, and professional collaboration or is there a risk they will contribute to learning environments that are characterized by competition and norms that create distrust?
• Are teachers full partners in discussions and decision making about changes to the educator effectiveness systems?
• Once changes are implemented, are they evaluated to determine whether the intended outcomes are accomplished? Have any unintended consequences occurred?

For those of us involved in the work of knowledge building and supporting policy developers it is key that we keep asking ourselves this question: What can we do to help policy leaders learn about andragogy, as well as human and social capital so they can make thoughtful decisions about how to build the capacity of educators?

Knowles, M. S. et al (1984) Andragogy in Action. Applying modern principles of adult education, San Francisco: Jossey Bass. Web reference site of Nan B. Adams, PhD . Southeastern Louisiana University.

Retrieved from:

Smith, M. K. (2002) ‘Malcolm Knowles, informal adult education, self-direction and andragogy’, the encyclopedia of informal education, Retrieved from www.infed.org/thinkers/et-knowl.htm.

Leana.C. (2010) Social Capital: The Collective Component of Teaching Quality Annenberg Institute for School Reform | Voices in Urban Education p 16-23. Retrieved from www.annenberginstitute.org/VUE/wp-content/pdf/VUE27_Leana.pdf

Theme: Overlay by Kaira