Posts filed under ‘School Transformation’

Third Grade on the Line

There seems to be little argument about 3rd grade as a benchmark year for children. Basic reading and numeracy skills acquired by the end of the 3rd grade are essential to their success in school, perhaps even life. If this is such an important milestone, why not reorganize schools and appoint leaders accountable exclusively for grades PreK-3?

Have you ever had a small child look up at you in genuine fear reporting back from an abandoned trip to the bathroom? “There are big kids in there.” They are terrified. K-8 schools make sense in some ways, but the age and size spreads can be daunting. Never mind the cognitive and emotional rollercoasters faced along the way. The search for connectivity from the first day of school through puberty is a noble one. So is the child’s need for belonging within the local community of family and friends. But these exigencies can be met without diffusing responsibility for the academic benchmarks to be achieved or unique psychosocial needs.

Historically, the movements from junior high (7-9) to middle school (6-8) to elementary school (K-8) have been driven by the needs of early adolescents. However, the youngest members of the school have gotten a bit lost in the shuffle. Placement of fragile, security-oriented children on a collision course with the largest and most narcissistic cohort can overwhelm them and obscure their needs.

Children between prekindergarten and 3rd grade make the transition across two stages of development and acquire the skill necessary to move from play-based learning to the milieu of applied academic industry. That is enough for one school team to accomplish. In fact, the work done in the early elementary years is so crucial to future achievement that researchers are beginning to tie failure to meet these benchmarks as hallmarks of failure to finish high school and loss of access to successful  careers in adulthood. Clearly, a strong case could be made for a PreK-3 school where children had the advantage of a focus on their specific needs and educators had exclusive responsibility for bringing all the children to a single level of competency.

Optimally, neighborhood schools for PreK-3 and 4-8 could be in sight of one another and share many services, such as food and transportation. Combined school communities are better able to underwrite shared facilities for the arts, technology, or physical education. In addition, elementary school children benefit from sheltered contact across grade levels. Smaller children enjoy mentoring by the older children. Young adolescents profit from learning about child growth and development as a context for their own maturation processes as well as training to assume childcare responsibility as babysitters. But they still need their own small learning communities.

(Prior post…Finding the Best Split for K-8 Elementary Schools)

February 22, 2012 at 11:23 AM 1 comment

Reinventing Schools – Without Charter District Conversion

Incredible work has been done in New Orleans and elsewhere demonstrating how charter schools can reinvent public education. Decentralized funding and managerial autonomy were two factors that proved essential to that success. Reformers are clamoring to duplicate the model of charter school funding and governance in wholly charter districts. The question arises – does this mean that every school in a district has to be a do-over?

After Katrina, the New Orleans schools were in shambles. Replacement charter schools seized the opportunity to implement education reforms. The experiment has resulted in strong achievement for the students. Rarely do such opportunities present themselves outside of war zones or natural disasters. So, how can the essence of this demonstration project be duplicated in other regions?

The process of breaking up every school in a district has a cost that does not need to be incurred. However, any program designed for successful dissemination of innovation in school funding and governance must be implemented thoughtfully. The dialogue could be developed around two essential questions…

  • How can a district achieve an orderly transition through gradual release of money and power to trained school managers with the least disruption to the children as their achievement grows.
  • What does the training for these new school leaders need to entail?

Drawing on strengths yet addressing urgent need would suggest a combination of breaking up the worst schools while implementing new management innovations in the best district schools. The former must achieve change as quickly as possible; the latter presumably have the organizational vitality to thrive under conditions of change.

In the short run, the answer to the second question seems moot. The time for change is now. Turnaround teams and managers of change demonstrate a special kind of leadership. Transition teams from outside of education need to be inducted into the industry quickly as partners in the process. At the same time, traditional school leaders would benefit from general management training and greater community engagement.

In the long run, however, a new model of school leadership will emerge that has a general manager running the overall organization, and instructional leaders and community liaisons managing collections of small learning communities. Each will demonstrate excellence in his or her discipline. As the model evolves, overlapping training would allow career mobility across the education complex.

February 10, 2012 at 8:03 AM Leave a comment

Securing the Floor to Raise the Ceiling

Sometimes both sides are right. Standardized tests do not confirm that students are doing their personal best work. Yet an inability to pass a grade level assessment does suggest that students have a deficiency in prerequisite skills for the next level. Can we agree to keep all students challenged and making progress…regardless of whether they are catching up or surging ahead?

When you bump your head on the ceiling, it’s the designer’s fault. When you bump your head on the floor, you may need to look in the mirror. It’s that way with student test scores, too. No one ever said that accountability testing was designed to limit how high achievement could get; rather, it was to ensure that no child was left behind because he or she was unprepared for the next level on the climb to the top.

Early intervention programs seek to catch developmental issues as soon as possible for young children. They pay off for a lifetime. So do basic reading and numeracy skills developed by grade three…and applied math and literacy skills by grade eight…and emerging abstract reasoning by grade ten. These are benchmarks that secure the floor for each age group.

Every child is born with gifts and challenges; it is our job as educators to provide the best possible platform for learning. This means multi-tasking as leaders. We do not receive our missions and instructions from regulators.  We must actively design our agendas for all children. School leaders who simply following a formula of priorities set for the lowest common denominator are missing the point and trying to blame the regulators. The whole reason for benchmarks is not to define an endpoint, it is to quickly measure achievement of a goal and move on.

We continue to try to build education on a shaky foundation for too many children. Let’s fix that and move on.

November 29, 2011 at 7:57 AM 1 comment

The Lawrence, MA Situation

The Mayor of Lawrence, MA has invited the Commonwealth to take over the city’s school system. Chronic failure within schools was complicated by the indictment of the Superintendent almost two years ago. Despite local turnaround efforts, the system has only gotten worse. The good news? Renewal through external oversight offers an opportunity to get reform ideas out of the incubator and into practice.

State takeover of the Lawrence Public Schools sounds like a big-budget, centralized administrative challenge modeled, perhaps, after the takeover of the Chelsea schools by academics a couple of decades ago. On the other hand, why not go for a decentralized model with the big bucks going straight to the schools and a high-powered leadership team?

Suppose every school in Lawrence had…

  • Leadership by a team consisting of a general manager with private turnaround experience, an instructional leader from within education, and a community outreach liaison.
  • Weighted-average funding of students directly to decentralized school budgets with a small percentage paid back to the district to support overhead.
  • Aggressive goal setting for student achievement with whole-school incentive pay for turnaround results
  • Data support to measure student performance, longitudinal progress toward grade level proficiency, psychosocial benchmarks, and personalized learning objectives.
  • Extended school days to bring all students closer to grade level achievement
  • New teacher contract with annual goal-setting and performance review
  • Access to health centers, counseling, and career services
  • Community-based centers to support academic and extracurricular activities for out-of-school time

Students would attend either a PreK-8 school or a high school characterized by…

  • Neighborhood PreK-8 schools with adjoining PreK-3 and Grades 4-8 facilities, or
  • Larger regional high schools with a campus atmosphere of small learning communities and shared facilities for science and technology, the arts, sports and physical education, and culinary arts and other vocations. (See details of The New Urban Academic Campus here.)

Given the large number of English learners in the city and high truancy and drop-out rates, student re-engagement and ELL programs would be priorities across the district. Previously shared Thoughts on English Language Learning can be found here. Also, I have some ideas about re-engagement in Middle School here, and High School here. In addition, my approach to Special Education would include the children in the dialogue with school leaders and special educators by grade four as summarized here.

November 16, 2011 at 10:53 AM Leave a comment

If Not Now…When?

My mom came home from a PTA meeting and vowed never to go back. My high school principal had addressed the recent proposal that students must read at a 10th grade level in order to graduate from high school. It had never occurred to her that he had assembled the parents to reassure them that he would do whatever was necessary to fight this literacy movement. It was 1971, and urban educators were under siege. I write today, like my mother, in disbelief that in 2011 the same battle cry against baseline intellectual integrity could seem so logical to so many.

Over 40 years ago, I transferred to an inner city school as part of a court-ordered desegregation plan. I had been born during the year of the Brown Decision, and sixteen years later a local judge declared that it was time to do the right thing. A handful of my classmates and teachers went with me as I was bussed to a school that was, ironically, only half the distance of my home from my previous high school. Actually, I walked to school, quite literally crossing the train tracks to see first-hand what the policy of Separate but Equal education had failed to deliver.

Ten years ago, I returned to urban education on the other side of the desk, attending a boot-camp teacher training program for mid-career professionals. Crossing the threshold of a high school in the fall of 2001 felt eerily like entering the halls of that inner city high school to which I had been bussed when I was 16. I was in a different city and decades older, but little had changed in the outward appearance of urban education. The building was an aging classic, materials were scarce, and my classroom furnishings Spartan. There was talk of an achievement gap that seemed based in demographics. Benchmark exams loomed as graduation requirements, creating a crisis for students with poor math and literacy skills. Time had stood still for an underserved population.

Recalling the urban high school experience of my youth, or even the era of the late 60s and early 70s that formed its context, I am struck by the differences that we take for granted today. Many civil rights are secure [although serious evidence to the contrary has been demonstrated since this post was published in 2011].  There is girl power to spare, as long as talk does not turn to titles and salaries. Smoking is bad, recycling is good. And pacifists have learned to hate the war but love the warrior. Still, the double standard in education has persisted, and access to superior schooling remains in the hands of the elite. For minority populations with low incomes, the separateness seems greater than ever.

When No Child Left Behind was enacted, the commitment was made to ensure that children entering kindergarten that year could be guaranteed college readiness by graduation 12 years later in 2014. Short-sightedness distracted us from that goal. Schools quickly became caught up in the race to graduation for the high school students who were not ready to pass any test. Somehow, the legacy of NCLB was not realized as the youngsters in urban elementary schools fell further and further behind their peers elsewhere.

Many of my former classmates have grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren, who are being ripped off in their schools, educationally underserved. NCLB was an attempt to say ”This stops here.” We set a date and were supposed to have meant it. Our 2014 goal is no longer in reach, leaving us a painful question. How many more generations must wait before public education is a right, not a privilege, for everyone’s kids?

November 2, 2011 at 9:25 PM Leave a comment

Show Me the Reports

Step 1 in any merit-based compensation program is training around the definition of merit. A template for performance measures and evaluation thereof is shown to the people who will be subject to them. Then the forms are filled out and discussion ensues. At some later date, these criteria are used for actual merit pay. Trust comes from knowing the people and the tool. It is not the basis for signoff on a system to be designed later.

With all the talk about teacher effectiveness and compensation, there must be hundreds of teacher effectiveness reports out there, right? Of course, they are based on well-developed records of student outcomes…which don’t really exist yet either, do they? Please tell me I’m wrong. Show me the reports.

Children learn with outward results; however, they also internalize many things that will manifest themselves later. We will never know all that we have taught them, the good, the bad, or the rest. That is why we look at teacher effectiveness with an eye to process and outcomes. Accordingly, multiple measures have been tossed around with regard to teacher performance. Now it is time for the report designers to just put the templates out there and validate them.

Similarly, children take tests to show what they have learned, their ability to analyze and solve problems. Children also demonstrate their habits of learning, their creativity and industriousness, and their civic mindedness. All will contribute to a foundation for lifelong learning. Additional measures that document intellectual and psychosocial development track their successful growth toward adulthood as well as highlighting need for intervention. Schools have built databases that cover some of these elements, but the models are not robust enough to be fully instructive or actionable. Still, it is time to print them and share them.

Absent good data, the debate over student outcomes and teacher effectiveness is being held in moot court. It is time for demonstration projects to reveal themselves and share what they have got, warts and all. Be prepared for flak, but don’t be surprised if you get more than a bit of praise from real reformers. We all need something tangible to turn this discussion into a problem with a solution.

Prior posts…on teacher effectiveness…on basic student data…on psychosocial development

October 24, 2011 at 8:10 AM Leave a comment

Saying No to Peer Pressure

Professionals benefit from constructive peer review. On the other hand, teachers calling upon one another to use peer pressure to ensure fellow teachers are up to snuff brings flashbacks of old-fashioned bullying. When compounded by passive aggressive leadership that pits teachers against one another, revival of toxic culture is more likely than reform. True leaders seek positive change and actively intend professional collaboration and review.

After a restless summer of teacher-bashing, budget woes, and discouraging reports from the field, educators are preparing to go back to school, each with renewed commitment to be part of the solution. Something has gone awry, however. In the absence of authentic education reform, well-meaning teachers are trying to fill the void. When talk turns to teachers using peer pressure to make sure their colleagues are up to snuff, it is time for the leaders to step in with a little counterintuitive insight.

Vigilante justice on behalf of students could set education reform back a few decades. A leader with a posse of do-gooders (who, by the way, often got a pass on their own quality review by association) was a hallmark of old-school toxic culture. We have been trying to move forward to a world of objective evaluations and collaboration. Good intentions need to be recognized and commended, of course. But efforts to bypass official channels of supervision should be redirected toward support for the whole team. New forms of evaluation and quality improvement are stressful enough without the distraction of self-appointed standard bearers.

To short circuit this phenomenon, teacher quality programs should formalize a process for peer review as well as professional development to support its implementation. Orientation should address the shared values among staff members, an understanding of roles for each team member, and simulated exercises to explore the process in advance. Constructive peer review can empower professional collaboration while taking the “gotcha” of peer pressure out of the mix.

August 19, 2011 at 4:42 PM Leave a comment

Billionaires Take the Bait

When did Bill and Melinda Gates forget who they were? Billionaire philanthropists have joined the great rescue mission that is public education today. They bring seemingly unlimited resources to drive the solution to one of the greatest challenges in the nation, educating our children. Yet they have undermined their own efforts by getting co-opted into the colossal group think tank of an insular industry. Myopic vision and managerial inexperience are being funded by giants who should know better.

To be successful, educators must invest the right amount of money in sustainable and scalable models driven by the mission of educating children in every demographic. All human capital as well as tangible and intangible assets must be redeployed efficiently and effectively, evolving from a turnaround mode to a growth model. While funded and regulated as a public good, education must be administered as an entrepreneurial business that is responsive to the needs of those it serves. Who should be better at helping us achieve these objectives than billionaire philanthropists who accumulated their wealth by solving problems just like these?

The trouble is…our billionaires fell for the notion that the same leadership that has flailed for the last fifty years in education still offers the best insight into its own needs.  Yes, we have the arrogance to invite the greatest entrepreneurs of our nation into our industry and assume they cannot function without being indoctrinated into our way of doing things. They are the money; we are the brains in this very flawed operation.

As funding agents, our business experts have taken the bait. They have skipped the diagnostic phase of the turnaround assignment. Partners with deep pockets have funded school leaders who deflect their own accountability onto teachers and ask for help firing the culprits and building better replacements. Little attention has been paid to an organizational model that systematically misallocates resources, operates bureaucracies that impede progress in favor of meeting regulations, and manages human resources divisively.

The potential exists to fund schools that serve as incubators for new ideas, to build databases for informed decision-making, and to motivate professionals to achieve better outcomes. Instead, smart managers are helping us to build slick new ways to perform the usual dumb tricks. How can we create entrepreneurial small schools in a district where diminished funding trickles down to the school level? We offer fewer choices to diverse learners and hope that the special relationships we build will suffice to engage them. How can we give teachers the knowledge they need to improve their practices collaboratively? We threaten them with rankings that will ultimately determine who stays or goes. How can we manage our human capital to achieve better results? We invest in elite newcomers, target the lowest common denominator for elimination, and ignore the majority in between. This is not managerial excellence.

 Looking at the generic issues in education, we should welcome guidance on such issues as…

  • Understanding our core mission
  • Implementing continuous quality improvement
  • Incubating ideas through small business start-ups
  • Managing and motivating adults
  • Fostering entrepreneurship in a regulated industry
  • Building a better pension plan for the future
  • Understanding asset-based management

Thus far, our work with mission statements has overlooked the primary goal of educating children, focusing instead on dozens of unique concepts that differentiate small schools. We need to start at the top and organize our districts around the children first. Spend the first dollar on that mission, not the nickels and dimes that trickle down to deconstructed schools. On the other hand, there are ways that education cannot be viewed through the lens of capitalism. Entrepreneurs, for example, know self-sacrifice and investments in sweat equity; the analogous martyrdom model for turnaround schools is not sustainable. Perhaps when our billionaires come to their senses they will help us find a better way.

July 6, 2011 at 9:32 PM Leave a comment

On cultural change through teacher leadership…

Some time ago, I worked on a Strategic Practice grant to expand a teacher leadership program at my high school. Found this among my entries…

 “The distributive leadership model is being explored to empower teachers as content leaders and mentors. While these roles have been designed to sustain momentum in academic disciplines and improve staff retention rates, incumbents also enhance the cultural diffusion of new values throughout the organization. Teacher leaders represent access to decision-making, goal-setting, and professional growth. As credible change agents, they endorse new programs by getting involved. As rank-and-file teachers, they stimulate interest in leadership values among peers as colleagues reflect upon their own professional aspirations in a new light. As a result, the current cohort of teacher leaders directly affects pedagogy as well as tacitly motivating their own successors. Ultimately, every member of the faculty should expect to have an impact on organizational growth and an opportunity to demonstrate leadership in and out of the classroom.

I continue to agree with this model; however, I would suggest some caveats below. 

  • Teacher leadership opportunities must offer authentic roles, not merely compensation for the absence of administrative assistants for content areas or professional development. The latter merely reinforces the bureaucracy by encumbering an exemplary leader with more low-level tasks, rather than genuinely supporting his or her career progress. Similarly, it reinforces a dues-paying mentality more so than creativity as a driver of career success.
  • Cultural change cannot occur unless peer leadership is empowered to challenge colleagues past the point of complacency with existing performance. There must be a shared sense of urgency for professional development along with the commitment to a participatory change process originating with senior management.
  • Having the intent and ability to lead is intrinsic to the teaching process. A culture of instructional excellence must recognize that strength across the faculty and encourage sharing of each unique voice. Access to leadership opportunities cannot be perceived to reside among a privileged few who share a common point of view.
  • Student-centered learning is nearly always on the agenda for professional development. Ironically, that is modeled through teacher-centered professional development whenever the teachers are being asked to learn something new. 
  • Teacher leaders should reflect the diversity of the faculty and the students over time. 
  • Institutional mentoring programs are by definition artificial and may reflect a lack of respect for maturity among teachers. Staff members should be encouraged in their search for kindred spirits and natural mentoring relationships. Time should be allowed for faculty relationships to evolve and genuine professional nurturing to emerge. School-assigned “mentors” should not be part of the long-term solution.

In keeping with my point of view…I resigned my teacher leader role after one year to make room for the next voice to be heard.

March 14, 2011 at 12:00 PM Leave a comment

The Paradox of Success

How success in urban middle schools has muddied the waters for high school educators

In leadership meetings…“What’s going on? The data looks good, but the kids are a mess. This must be a bad cohort year. And that’s what I thought last year…until I met this group.” In the halls…”What’s wrong with these kids? They’re smart but they’re so spacey. They’ve got no ability to focus or follow the simplest direction. It’s those damned video games.” Or, in the teacher’s lounge…“It’s those charter schools…skimming all the good kids. This is what we’re left to deal with. Can you believe it?” Fault-finding missions may be obscuring early signs of student success, costing us our faith in good programs and the insight to preserve their long-term benefits for students.

Sometimes progress takes strange forms. Suppose…

  • The student who suddenly seems unclear on any concept is merely overwhelmed by emerging abstract thought at an earlier age than we have come to expect.
  • A high-risk student returning to school after heavy absenteeism feels like a fish out of water and is tempted to give the social cachet of rebelliousness or underground cultural experience priority over the challenge of catching up academically.
  • Students who follow others are trying on personas without the insight to back them up. They support the cultural shift at their grade level but are genuinely clueless.
  • Concrete thinkers who are more independent form cliques socially as a defense mechanism, some finding refuge in adult guidance while others spin out of control.

Each of these cohorts responds to a different set of coping strategies, and recognition of their motivation is crucial to successful intervention.

As a special educator, one of my greatest privileges was to witness the convergence of knowledge, maturity, and stamina evident in students with emerging abstract reasoning. It was the surest sign that they were ready to clear one of their toughest hurdles, the high school graduation exam requirement. Often they were juniors or seniors before they finally “grew up.” But what is happening with the children in general education who are arriving at that intellectual age at a younger chronological age?

As urban adolescents begin to catch up with their peers elsewhere, teachers and administrators must make accommodations to stay head. The range of skill levels, especially in ninth and tenth grade classrooms, creates a greater need than ever for differentiated instruction. Students regressing behaviorally as they cope with that giant leap into the world of abstraction need greater academic challenge combined with help getting organized. The returning drop-out needs respectful and private remediation along with leadership opportunities. The concrete thinker benefits from scaffolding to create a bridge to abstract concepts as well as peer tutoring to stay connected with student leaders. Every student needs a chance to share his or her strengths in class.

Beyond the classroom, advisories and activities must offer opportunities for students to reinvent themselves as young adults with positive identities in meaningful communities. Alienation abounds. Students drop out of school not only as a self-fulfilling prophecy of academic failure, but also to protest their failure to find their voice in the setting. Even the most engaged students need safe ways to challenge authority, assess risk, and test boundaries. There must be rewards for carrying the burden of greater knowledge at a younger age, the chance to apply it in freely chosen ways.

Progress is being made. New management challenges are the price of that success. Many current frustrations in education replace complaints such as, “My students are so concrete they could sink a ship.” Or, “I quit teaching math because I felt like I had to start over each year. The students never remembered anything.” Those were not the good old days.

 We cannot turn our backs on math and literacy basics yet. However, the new model for the urban high school must include a broader range of options for academic content, electives, and extracurricular activities. Talented and well-educated youths need opportunities to grow in multifaceted ways as they explore their interests. They must become leaders for their own cause as they reach for new possibilities in careers and higher education.

March 1, 2011 at 2:28 PM Leave a comment

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