Starting with school culture

There are days when my professional life and my board of education life seem pretty far apart, and often at the expense of my personal life. Then, there are days where my professional life, my personal life, and my board of education life all come together. This morning, I had the opportunity to visit one of my district’s elementary schools. This school was a formerly low-achieving neighborhood school that many families avoided. Under the dynamic leadership of a new principal, the school has a new culture that is intensely focused on student learning and building community, and the academic achievement continues to rise.

CT’s Governor Lamont joined a line of up Yale academics, funders, and community partners to highlight the work of Tracey Elementary (news story), while also pitching the release of a new report “From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope” from the Aspen Institute’s Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, generously supported by the Dalio Foundation.

In my professional world right now, I’m developing a training program on shifting school culture (based on this CST publication). Today, I saw example after example of practices that I preach about in professional trainings in action at Tracey Elementary school. I saw kids engaged in learning in small groups, positive interactions with staff, student tour guides speaking about the value of having lunch with their teachers, family-style round lunch tables, cross grade level reading buddies, student kudos for the school’s crossing guard, bright colorful student work lining the halls, chill out corners in every classroom, and most importantly, the school’s character work embedded in the philosophy of the building and classroom academics.

So, why is school culture so important? The culture represents the environment of the school. It reflects the customs, traditions, and the values of the community. A positive school culture makes teachers and students want to come to school each day to work and to learn. In contrast, a negative school culture results in disengagement, disciplinary issues, and high absentee rates, all of which impact student achievement.

While I’ve always wanted to see these things in a school site visit, I recognize the mind shift that I have since becoming a parent. Tracey Elementary school is my neighborhood school. This may be the school that my 2.5 year old will attend in the not so distant future. When I walked through the building today, I thought “How would my child do in this environment? Would this be the right fit for him? Do I have any hesitations about sending my child here?” When the time comes, we will have a hard decision to make (there’s also a dual language immersion elementary school that I would love to have my bilingual child in), but without a doubt, as long as Tracey remains on the current path it’s on, I would confidently send my child to our neighborhood school. If a school isn’t good enough for my child, it’s not good enough for any child.

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Thanks to my great 5th grader tour guides! Photo credit: Norwalk Public Schools 

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Federal policy is the floor not the ceiling

We often talk about states complying with federal requirements, yet it is important to remember that federal policies and procedures represent the floor and not the ceiling. ESSA requires states to do a number of things related to how schools are identified for support, what their accountability metrics must include, how states communicate progress on those accountability measures, and how funds are used (amongst other things). But, states can go above and beyond those requirements. I highlighted this concept last week at CCSSO’s Implementing Systems for Continuous Improvement meeting in Tampa, Florida. Schools and districts identified for CSI supports must complete needs assessments, but schools and districts identified for TSI supports don’t have to complete needs assessments. Some State Education Agencies have realized the importance of needs assessments are are also requiring schools identified for TSI supports to also complete a needs assessment to ensure that their plan for improvement aligns with their actual needs.

A recent rollback of federal lunch standards is another example of this concept. Just because the federal government is allowing more flexibility to districts to slow down their decreased sodium content or relax the whole grain requirements, it does not mean districts must do so. Districts were already working under the previous guidelines, so why should we backtrack to less healthy food again? Schools and districts have the ability to go above and beyond the federal guidelines to ensure school meals are as healthy as possible for their students. (And yes, healthy food can taste good, and kids can learn to like veggies, whole grains, and salads!)

States, districts, and schools have the responsibility to make decisions that are in the best interest of the students they serve. Sometimes the federal government’s standards ensure that happens, but other times the adults at the local level must step in and set their own floors, which may be higher than the feds.

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New reviews of state ESSA implementation

Is your state creating systems to meaningfully address underperforming schools for all kids? I was honored to join education policy experts to analyze 17 states’ school improvement plans. Here’s what we had to say: https://forstudent.org/csp-p2p

The peer review process was a great experience digging into the resources that states have created for district and school leaders, learning about what others are doing, seeing trends across the country, and an energizing opportunity to work with peers to assess, evaluate, and make recommendations. States are light years ahead of where we were just a few years ago, and yet there is still much more room for improvement. We must monitor implementation and make midcourse corrections to best serve the students and the education system, in each and every state.

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Generosity doesn’t equal justice

I heard a thought provoking piece on NPR this afternoon. At times I agreed with the discussion, and at times I disagreed. Either way, it got me thinking. The author, Anand Giridharadas, the author of a new book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, was interviewed and highlighted several arguments from the book that explores how the global elite’s propensity towards charity sometimes create (or perpetuate) the very social problems they are trying to “help.” In an interview with Time he states, “A lot of philanthropists cause problems with their left hand and then try to fix those problems with their right hand.” He continues, “They underpay workers and then try to rebuild, through their foundation, the American opportunity structure.” For this reason, Giridharadas doesn’t think that real solutions to our national problems, from wage stagnation to education inequality, will come from the country’s wealthy and powerful but rather a return to America’s foundational public institutions. “It is we the people who actually need to take change back from these pretenders of change,” he said.

Full disclosure – I haven’t read the book and I’m not going to elaborate on the tax code and the ability to deduct charitable donations, or the fact that non-profit organizations do have positive impacts and can spur innovation in many places around the world. This would be a very lengthy blog post to truly respond and reflect on the entire interview.

So, the piece that resonated with me was when he said, “Generosity does not equal justice,” or something to that effect (the audio of the show isn’t yet available for me to double check the quote). As I started thinking about it, I thought about the often used meme “equality, equity, justice” (figure 1 below) that encourages us uncover the root causes of issues and then address the systemic barriers that exist. The generosity of millionaires and billionaires does not simply result in equity for those who need additional supports to do whatever short-term circumstances and sources of systemic oppression impact them.

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Figure 1: Equality, Equity, Justice Meme

The problem right now is that based on the decades of inefficiencies, oppression (racial, gender, sexual orientation, language, etc) that the very systems that are supposed to turn around outcomes (i.e. health, education, social) continue to perpetuate them. Even when we receive a significant influx of philanthropic dollars to implement a program to target a need (i.e. an afterschool program for low-income students), we continue to tinker around the edges of the system, as opposed to truly changing the entire system (i.e. a longer school day with extracurriculars and academics combined and accessible for all students, combining the work of community partners and the school district into one cohesive effort). We are in an endless cycle of needing philanthropic dollars to improve outcomes, yet the very presences of those dollars sometimes pushes us to not rethink the broader infrastructure and systems. We become reliant on those dollars as it often seems too difficult or cumbersome to truly change the system.

This all said, there are numerous organizations and funders that are still doing great work and we should not stop those programs, strategies, and efforts. And, we should do so, while keeping an eye out for true innovation. We must pushing ourselves and our elected, appointed, and hired government leaders to truly address the root causes of social issues and work together to remove those historic and systemic barriers.

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New program for progressive district leaders

I’m delighted to announce a new professional learning opportunity for district superintendents and deputy/assistant superintendents – the Purpose to Practice Academy (P2P Academy).

Progressive district superintendents and their deputies/assistants often seek out their own professional learning opportunities to push their thinking, learn about innovative approaches, and problem solve issues of practice. While state education leaders and large districts have more access to experts in the field, small to mid-size districts often lack access to education reform experts and information on how to apply research and promising practices to their own practice.

The continuous improvement cycle can be applied to all districts (and all organizations). There is always room to provide more efficient and effective services, supports, and structures.

The Purpose to Practice Academy is a virtual learning network for progressive district superintendents and their deputies. The virtual academy, includes a series of six 2-hour webinars, off-line peer support on a problem of practice, and an e-newsletter with current research and promising practices.

The inaugural cohort will feature 6 sessions between late October 2018 and late April 2019. Additional or rolling cohorts may be added, dependent upon interest. For more information – click here. Completed applications are due by Monday, September 24, 2018.

Questions and completed applications can be emailed to academy@corbetteducation.com. I look forward to seeing how this program will evolve and serve district leaders across the country.

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Closing achievement gaps in diverse and low-poverty schools – an analysis

Despite millions of dollars in funding to support closing achievement gaps, many efforts fail. After more than a decade of working in this field and seeing the same cycles continue, I would claim that the efforts often fail for a variety of reasons, including: a lack of root cause analysis, not aligning solutions to the root causes, lack of structural and systemic changes, and failure to implement with fidelity (note- all areas in which the adults are responsible).

A new report, Closing Achievement Gaps in Diverse and Low-Poverty Schools, from the Oak Foundation and Public Impact unpacks some of these issues. There are so many good pieces of information in this this report. So many, that I can’t summarize them. This report is a must read, as it examines systemic issues, structural/technical implementation issues, and connects to policies and practice.

The report highlights why closing achievement gaps and fighting for equity is such hard work. It’s not a quick fix to buy a program or bring in a consultant, but it requires a multi-faceted approach with a toolbox of programs, strategies, and changes. It requires going through the phases of the continuous improvement cycle, developing strong goals, building out an implementation plan, and monitoring (and making mid-course corrections) along the way. To do all of this requires strong capable leaders who can push change, while also engaging with the stakeholders to communicate the why and how. This work is not for the faint of heart.

Some of the findings and statements that I find particularly relevant include:

  • “Today, the achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers is approximately twice as large as the racial achievement gap between white and African-American children.” (pg 8)
  • “Moreover, the income achievement gap for reading between children born in the mid-1990s to late 1990s is nearly 40 percent larger than the gap among children born in the 1970s.” (pg 8)
  • “Many school systems continue to operate discipline systems that suspend and expel students of color at higher rates than white students. Large-scale studies have shown that this cannot be explained by differential rates of serious infractions. Year after year, these systems keep students of color out of classrooms, perpetuating inequities.” (pg 9)
  • “Given the deep roots of achievement gaps, districts will not find a quick fix or a simple checklist of policies and practices that will close them. Instead, addressing achievement gaps successfully requires committing deeply to equity, engaging with the community to understand its needs and perspectives, taking persistent and complete action steps to change, and being accountable to the community for equitable outcomes. Only within a context of commitment, engagement, action, and accountability can districts expect the research-based policies and practices we outline below to have a meaningful and lasting impact.” (pg 14)

In conclusion, the authors write that “a district must be willing to commit to equity, engage families and the community, take a complete set of actions to fulfil the commitment, and embrace accountability for success” (pg 22). The authors are on point throughout the piece and all district and state education professionals who aspire to close any and all achievement gaps should would benefit from the findings in this piece.

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New publication – Shifting School Culture to Spark Rapid School Improvement

In a new publication from the Center on School Turnaround (at WestEd)Shifting School Culture to Spark Rapid School Improvement: A Quick Start Guide for Principals and their Teams,  we define what school culture is, how a school culture is informed by the cultures and experiences of the school’s students, teachers/staff, families and the surrounding community, and what are some practical steps a school can take to celebrate and incorporate a positive school culture into the day to day environment.

The introduction states “A school’s culture is a powerful force that will work for or against improvement efforts. A school with persistent and chronic low achievement has, almost by definition, spiraled into a negative culture that contributes to and is worsened by its failures. Rapid improvement, then, requires culture shift, an enterprise that requires changes in mindsets, norms, and attitudes and is as difficult and uncertain as it is essential.

The document ends with a practical tool that school and district staff can use to assess the building’s current culture and determine some action steps for improvement.

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