Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Turnaround Schools

Periodically, I read something that captures important insights so well, that I feel the need to write about it to the point of near plagiarism. I write today about Allan Odden's recent article in Education Week. One of the leading centers for educational thought is found at the University of Wisconsin's Center for Educational Research. I like reading their work, because it seems to be consistently thoughtful, and consistently bereft of the sense of pandering to the educational industrial complex that one finds in think-tanks that derive their funding from organizations with a point of view. A recent article in Education Week by its Director Allan Odden, caught my attention as being particularly appropriate as we confront pressures from the Obama and Pawlenty administrations to exchange reform for funding. The article, entitled "We Know How to Turn Schools Around."

Now right away, I have to caution that when we talk about turning schools around, we are using language that seems to suggest that the schools and teachers are the problem, that they have done something that merits re-probation and failing marks. Sometimes this is true. There are schools, especially in major metropolitan areas where the staff is not qualified, where leadership is completely ineffective, where the curriculum is embarrassingly weak, and where the resources are so limited that the school itself is a huge part of the problem. These are schools where turning everything upside down and starting from scratch might make sense. But we don't have that problem in St. Cloud or anywhere in Central Minnesota.

We have a teaching force that is capable of taken young people to the highest levels. They are smart, highly qualified and dedicated. The challenge that we face in St. Cloud is a change in the readiness of many of the students who are coming to school. So we need to start with two central propositions. We have great teachers and great programs. The reform that we need to do is not a negative reflection on them; it is driven by the fact that we have an obligation to take the children who come to us and deliver them to excellence on graduation. We are meeting the needs of most of our students; the majority of our students are doing way better than students did when I was in school. They write better; they know more science and math, and they achieve far beyond anything that we dreamed of achieving.

Odden argues that we know how to make the changes we need to make. He characterizes this as a recipe for turning schools around. I would characterize the principles as helping us to change directions to respond to a changing student population. Odden identifies 5 components of reforms leading to excellence:

Sense of Urgency: "The first step is to create a sense of urgency. Such heightened awareness of problems and their impact emerges when teachers and administrators analyze state student-performance data together and become more informed about the academic effectiveness of their school and district."

Setting Ambitious Goals: The next step is setting ambitious—some might call them eye-popping—goals.

Reform Curriculum and Implement Best Practices: "to build, over time, a common understanding of effective instruction. Districts that move the student-achievement dial by large amounts have a systemic view of curriculum and focus intensely on instructional practices shown to work—and they require all of their teachers to use them."

I want to pause here to emphasize this point, because it is so important. It represents a paradigm shift for some of us. When all students come ready to learn, we can run our schools on a different model, a model in which teachers have a high degree of autonomy. But when a significant number of students are coming to school not ready to learn, albeit still a minority of those students, we cannot assure success for all students, unless all teachers adopt and adhere to best practices. Does this mean that teachers must become educational automatons, educational vending machines? Not at all. Best practices may look differently in different classrooms, because teachers have different strengths. You can't make professionals effective by making them all do exactly the same thing in exactly the same way. But we can expect that, using their individual strengths, they adhere to best practices and achieve best possible results.

Move beyond a concentration on state tests and use a battery of assessments, including formative and diagnostic assessments, common end-of-curriculum-unit assessments, and benchmark assessments. Formative and diagnostic assessments hone instructional strategies before each curriculum unit begins. End-of-unit assessments not only measure what students have learned, but also compare the effects teachers have had across classrooms. Benchmark assessments gauge overall student performance every nine weeks. All of these enable teachers to make midcourse corrections and to get students into interventions earlier.

Creating and implementing an intensive and ongoing professional-development program. The best districts and schools form collaborative teacher teams—professional learning communities—that meet often, make use of student data, and work with school-based coaches to improve curriculum and instruction. These schools and districts also include intensive summer institutes in their professional-development plans, to allow teachers opportunities to gain new knowledge.

So here we are again. At the center of reform is collaborative teacher teams. This is the DuFour approach that I've written before, but packaged in somewhat different language. Over and over again, we keep hearing the same story from leading researchers.

But teacher driven team based collaboration does not occur in isolation, and this is important. The teacher driven teams are part of a complete district wide team, led by principals and executive leadership whose focus is on educational excellence.

Leadership in successful turnaround systems is “dense.” Teachers lead grade- and subject-based professional learning communities. Most of the instructional coaches are the school’s best teachers, and they orchestrate the overall professional-development system. And principals provide real instructional leadership. Moreover, these districts also have instructional leaders in the central office who know how to support schools and teachers and can help create the systemic approach to curriculum and instructional practice needed.

In order for public schools to transform themselves to meet new challenges, we need a new vision of professionalism, based on teamwork, on leadership, and on collaboration and on accountability:

Turnaround schools and districts are professional in the best sense of the word. Their staff members read the most recent research, reach out to experts in the field, look for and use best practices, and take responsibility for assessing the impact on student learning of what they do, improving instructional practices when student results are not what’s desired.

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