Saturday, January 23, 2010

Using what works may really work...but it requires collaboration and leadership

One of the significant trends in education is the progress that is now being made in understanding how to be more successful with more students. I can't say when the slogan "all children can learn," became a mantra in education, but for for many years, it didn't seem as though a whole lot of thought was given as to how that might happen operationally in the real classroom. We believed that all children can learn, but what did that mean and how could we accomplish it? For some, it meant stick everybody in the same class and if you treat them all as if they are equally capable of learning, by some magic, they will all learn. That's a bit unfair to the most thoughtful of the "all children can learn" movement, but there was a sense in which some proponents of the slogan seemed to believe that somehow if you throw a bunch of kids into a classroom and with the proper dose of self esteem, cooperative learning, and good will, by golly all children will learn. Two decades ago, the research which drove education was often heavily infected by philosophy and ideology.

In the last decade, however, driven partly by No Child Left Behind, partly by the standards movement, and partly by an increasing sophistication in educational research, education appears to be making significant progress in incorporating rigorous research based ideas that have a prospect of making a significant improvement in what teachers and schools can accomplish.

To some extent, the success of the new rigor is being masked by a change in who is coming to school. More students are coming to school who live in poverty. More students are coming to school who cannot speak English, or whose English proficiency is quite limited. More students are coming to school who have not been read to at home. And, we have been focusing most of our measurement on the accomplishments of that subgroup of students. But against that trend appears to be an emerging consensus amongst the best minds in education on "what works." I'm not qualified to put my foot down and assert that I know what the right answers are. But it seems to me, from the outside, that educators are discovering that there are some approaches that work better than others, and that when the approaches that work are implemented systemically it can make a significant difference, especially for the students who historically have not done well in school.

In a previous post, I summarized Alan Odden's an article by Allan Odden, entitled "We Know How to Turn Schools Around."
Odden hails from one of the leading centers for educational thought, the University of Wisconsin's Center for Educational Research. One of the centerpieces of the new movement to reach more students effectively is the concept of implementing "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."

Now this idea, of implementing systemic requirements that teachers must follow can really be threatening to the concept of the teacher as professional. It can create a vision of the days when teachers had to put their lesson plan on the board, and their lesson plan had to be identical to the lesson plan delivered to them by a bureaucrat in the State Department of Education or in the central office of the district administration. But that's not the idea of best practices at all, at least as I understand them. Best practices calls for using what works with the students before you, and implementing what works is both an art and a science of the highest degree of complexity.

When my wife came to this community, highly trained in working with students with dyslexia, she discovered that the "D-Word" was not used in public education in many places. Education professionals could simply will away what had been proven to work with these students. Yet, it was already well known that a huge segment of students with high potential were not reaching their potential because of neurological barriers to learning that manifest as dyslexia. It was already well known that certain techniques could unlock the potential of these students, and yet it was deemed permissible to ignore those techniques, simply because they did not fit the current educational fads extant at the time. Millions of students across the country failed because many schools of education did not teach what was already known, and consequently educators refused to implement research best practices. But now the new openness to doing what works has opened the floodgates and throughout Minnesota and elsewhere it is becoming increasingly possible to use what works to teach students with dyslexia. Eventually, if we are to realize the full potential of all students, using what doesn't work cannot be tolerated.

Similarly, for a long time, it was permissible to teach non-English speaking students with techniques that were not researched based, and in many districts ESL was taught in ways that delayed the progress of these students. Once again, an emerging consensus on "what works" has begun to infiltrate school districts across the country, driving out ineffective techniques and leading to more rapid success with English language learners. Similarly, for a long time as well, it was permissible in public education to use techniques that were proven ineffective with advanced learners, especially in the K-8 grades, simply because those techniques fit preconceived philosophical beliefs. But more and more, in this area too, what works is what counts. Increasingly, school districts are becoming intolerant of the use of techniques that have been proven not to work.

Does this mean that every teacher must teach every student in an identical way? Absolutely not. Teachers have different strengths and different "comparative advantages." It would be silly to force a teacher to teach in a way that is ineffective for that teacher or ineffective for particular student. Doing what works doesn't mean using a practice that isn't working for that teacher or for the students who are actually in the particular classroom. Does this mean that some of the techniques that are being pushed forward will prove as effective as they are claimed to be? Sadly, there is a history of fastening on to new techniques don't work as well, or for as many students, as originally claimed. It is this history, of bringing forward new systemic reforms and requiring teachers to turn their teaching practices upside down that causes many of the most experienced teachers to be skeptical when they are asked to engage in intensive, time consuming reform. They wonder how long these new reforms will last, before someone comes along and tells them that, no, the last new reform didn't really work, and now something new must be tried.

And yet, we know that there are effective and ineffective ways of doing open heart surgery. We know that there are effective ways and ineffective ways of treating diabetes. In the medical profession there is a raging debate over whether doctors should be organized in ways that implement the best practices research in medicine. (see Gawande, The Checklist). Much of the resistance to implementation of more highly effective techniques in medicine has come from older physicians who believe that it demeans their professionalism to require that they implement the new ways of progress that use "what really works." But in medicine this is an alibi designed to avoid making change. Working collaboratively to implement what works is the new wave of professionalism, and the professional of the future will regard it as unprofessional to refuse to adopt methods that are proven to work. From lawyers to accountants, to doctors to firefighters to anti-terror teams, we are learning that professionals working together rigorously to implement what works can dramatically improve the effectiveness of that team of professionals.

So here we are again. At the center of reform is collaborative teacher teams. This is the DuFour approach that I've written about 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. Teaching is a profession where the result depends heavily on the work that many others do. The second grade teacher cannot be completely successful unless the first grade teacher is successful, and neither can be as successful as they should be, without the cooperation of parents and of course the student. Successful schools require collaboration and collaboration requires leadership. As Odden says:

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.

As Odden points out: "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."

Professionals who work in teams using best practices under the leadership of the most experienced can transform education and if public education is to meet the challenge of the 21st Century we must find effective ways of accomplishing that transformation.

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