Sunday, August 29, 2010

Doubling Stragegies (3)

On Thursday, I wrote about the concept of doubling student performance. The word comes from a book by Allen Odden of the University of Wisconsin, titled Doubling Student Performance and finding the resources to do it. The concept of doubling, speaks to making a quantum leap in the performance of a sub-group of students who are not reaching proficiency. Odden's book reports the results of the University of Wisconsin's research into how school districts have taken these students--who are not performing at acceptable levels--and "doubled" their performance. He calls it doubling, because the idea is that if a only 40% of a particular subgroup of students are performing at the proficient level, the district decides to double the number reaching proficiency, say, to 80%. On Saturday, I briefly described three of the ten strategies identified by Odden's research, strategies that are common to the districts and schools that have demonstrated outstanding success in the doubling process. Today, I want to discuss two more of the ten. As a reminder, the first three strategies are (1) Understanding the performance problem and the challenge, (2) Set ambitious goals, and (3) Change the curriculum program and create a new instructional vision.

But before I proceed, I want to mention the excellent point that a commenter made on Saturday. He pointed out that there is a danger when we assume that all students must achieve to an arbitrary cut line that is set at a high level of proficiency. He pointed out that some young people have abilities and interests that likely will make their life more fulfilling if we don't demand that they master Algebra II, for example. This is an important issue. But we know for sure that there are lots of students who are deprived of even making the choice of aspiring to learn Algebra II, or let it go by the boards, because they are not learning basic reading, writing and math skills. But I do agree, that we need to temper our enthusiasm for doubling with a recognition that we must make sure that we don't destroy some young lives in the process, by trying to force them to learn what is beyond the mental equipment that the good Lord gave them.

But today, I do want to talk about the next two doubling strategies, (4) Formative Assessments and Data-Based Decision Making, and (5) Ongoing Intensive Professional Development.

  • Formative Assessments and Data-Based Decision Making. Despite the outcry in some circles that there is too much testing, Odden says that the doubling districts are actually introducing more testing, not less, but they are using new form of testing in a fundamentally different way. The idea is to use what I call "just in time" testing results to drive instruction, what testing experts call "formative testing." The state proficiency tests that come from No Child Left Behind provide end of the year "summative" tests, that tell the teacher, parent and student how students performed at the end of the year, when it is too late to use those testing results for anything other than hand-wringing and casting blame. The new wave of testing is providing teachers immediate feedback at the beginning and during the year, so that the teacher can use the testing results to attack the problem immediately.

Several years ago, our board of education supported the District's request to install a new testing system, the nationally recognized Northwest Evaluation Associates (NWEA), and I've posted extensively in the past on how our district is using MAP tests and RIT scores to provide teachers with the testing tools they need to make a difference early in the school year. (For a prior post on the use of NWEA in our district, click here and here. )In addition to its use by teachers to improve instruction, and its use by educational leaders to monitor and assist teachers with struggling students, the NWEA testing system is providing our district with an enhanced accountability system that is providing a window on where we are succeeding, and where we are not measuring up. The proper use of the NWEA system is identified by Odden and others as one of the most cost-effective ways of stimulating improved instruction and achieving the goal of doubling.

I put a check mark behind this goal, because it has been implemented by our district as a centerpiece of our doubling strategy. The check mark doesn't mean that we are done yet, in making necessary improvements in the use of NWEA testing to drive improved instruction. But it does mean that we have provided resources, implemented testing, and the process of the use of formative assessments and data-based decision making is well under way in our district.

  • Ongoing Intensive Professional Development Ongoing intensive professional development is a critical component as well of restructuring public education to drive up the scores of students who have historically not reached proficiency. When I discuss this aspect of doubling, I often hear from so-called traditionalists that, well, good teachers don't need professional development, because they have a teachers license, and they should be expected to teach without additional help. I have to postpone a discussion of that position to another day, because my main goal here is to describe what Odden and many others who have reviewed district success stories have found. I'm reporting to you what the all of the leading national experts on making huge performance leaps have found over and over again in successful districts. This is not some theoretical exercise in education philosophy. This is the result of painstaking study of success. "So stay with me for a while. I'm arguing that the best way do something hard, is to replicate the work of folks who have been successful."

I want to put an exclamation point on the Professional Development requirement, because it requires a significant allocation of resources. The kind of professional staff development that really works--that is proven to work--has been estimated to cost about $450 per student in 2005 dollars, and Odden is a hard nosed conservative when it comes to estimating the cost of education. Finding resources to implement ongoing intensive professional development is one of the major challenges in implementing a doubling process, and Odden suggests that every district should do an audit of where it is currently putting its staff development resources and first to reallocate existing resources to proven strategies. He writes

"funding a comprehensive, ongoing professional-development strategy....is the key to success with many [of the other] strategies, such as class-size reduction. Thus, it should be the top priority for any district or school launching a strategy to dramatically boost student performance."
I didn't put a check mark next to this item, even though we've made a significant beginning here in our school district. But to earn a check mark, in my view, we must permanently allocate the necessary resources, and we must gain widespread acceptance within our district of the absolute necessity of this component. And, we must review our current practices so that we are using our professional staff development in the right way and at the right time, and to do this, we need a systemic commitment to the kind of professional staff development that is proven most effective. Because this is so important, according to virtually all who have studied school success, I'm going to devote a post to professional development in the coming days.

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