New Publication — A Practical View of MTSS

The third and final publication of a series for the Illinois Center for School Improvement (at AIR) is Practical View of MTSS.  This document includes an overview of what MTSS (multi-tiered system of supports) is, how MTSS aligns to other educational acronyms (RTI, PBIS), what MTSS looks like in practice, and key elements and some suggested tips for successful implementation of MTSS.

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New Publication — The Role of Equity in School Improvement

The second of a three part publication series for the Illinois Center for School Improvement (at AIR) features The Role of Equity in School Improvement. We write “Today educational equity stretches far beyond the idea of leveling the playing field (equality) to one that integrates the timely, needs-based support for all students to attain their maximum capacity (equity)” (Garland, et al, 2018. p. 2). The publication includes some introductory information that frames a discussion on equity, and then highlights what equity looks like in each of the four domains of school improvement: Leadership, Talent, Instruction, and Culture (The four domains are championed by the Center on School Turnaround at WestEd). Reflective questions are included throughout the document to prompt discussions of school and district staff.

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New publication– System Thinking Leadership for District and School Improvement

In the next few weeks, I’ll highlight a new three-part series of documents that was created for the Illinois Center for School Improvement (run by the American Institutes for Research). The first, System Thinking Leadership for District and School Improvement, was designed as a primer on how systems thinking informs school and district improvement. We focus on leadership as it is the heart of any improvement work. The document includes some Illinois-specific references, yet the majority of the content is applicable for any district or state across the country. One of the most important pieces that came out of the early thinking for this publication was a visual representation on how the the continuous improvement cycle is applicable for each of the foundational elements of improvement (leadership, talent, instruction, and culture); is supported by needs assessment(s); must include efficient and effective systems, structures, and processes; and, be supported by districts and state actions. LAYLAND_GRAPHIC_v4

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Residency models for teacher training

We know that on the ground training with close monitoring and mentorship is more likely to produce better professionals, yet we still see this done in isolated communities. This recent post on bringing the medical residency model to education reminded how badly this is needed and how much our routes to teaching certification still need to change to reflect the realities of education and our economy. I saw a similar model when visiting Ann Arbor, Michigan a few years ago to write a case study  on their efforts to close achievement gaps. In Ann Arbor, the university held classes for pre-service teachers at the school and concentrated the student teachers within a small number of schools. This brought exemplar teachers into the school on a regular basis, shifted the overall approach to one of continuous learning, and impacted the pre-service teachers as well as the veterans. I also this type of approach when in England learning about their education systems as well. We must also recognize that in today’s economy, some folks may enter the teaching field mid-career, and others will move on to different sectors after a few years. Leaders in Michigan are clearly thinking creatively and we all must think out of the box to recruit the best and brightest into education, to provide them the skills they need to lead a classroom, and the supports they need to thrive in the future.

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What blending learning looks like in practice

A new publication on how innovative staffing approaches support the use of blending models was recently released by Public Impact and the Christensen Institute.

A few excerpts that particularly resonated with me:

“… high-quality personalized learning requires much more than equipping students with tablets and software.” … “The greatest impact of blended learning will likely come not from technology alone, but from a redesign of staffing arrangements and instructional models that integrate online learning with excellent teaching. Most schools, including many of those that are seeking to adopt blended and personalized learning, remain stuck in a one-teacher, one-classroom model. In that model, teachers work largely alone, with only sporadic feedback and support. New tasks associated with personalizing learning— such as analyzing student data, differentiating learning activities for student needs, planning real-world learning experiences, giving individualized feedback, and helping students set customized goals—are often added to already overwhelming workloads. In these schools, teachers of all levels of effectiveness essentially play the same role, and they reach about the same number of students.”

The publication then explores how a handful of schools are utilizing new staffing models to adopt blended learning to enable personalization. The varying practices in the schools are the heart of the document and the most useful way to see how the work could be applied in other schools and districts.  The document concludes that to move forward and bring such practices to scale, three conditions must be met. They include: including operations in the annual operating budgets, as opposed to relying on grant funding; availability of excellent teachers; and, availability of great leaders to champion excellence and be willing to think outside of the traditional educational program and staffing boxes.

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The importance of a good principal

There are so many good pieces in this video clip from EdWeek. It’s only a few minutes and I recommend the quick watch. We know how important good strong principals are – they foster collaborative relationships between students, they set high expectations for staff, they care for students (and the students know it), they are open and receptive to parents and families, they understand how to improve instruction and support teachers to do so, and so much more. We also know that traditional principal training programs don’t often teach principals how to do all these things (in addition to the business and operational aspects of running a school that are also often lacking in new principals). Strong mentor programs and embedded professional development opportunities for principals are key to supporting new principals. Providing appropriate administrative and operational support for principals is also a way to ensure that the principals can focus and prioritize the instructional, systemic, and cultural pieces of a school that are so very important.

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When equal isn’t equitable

Budget season is upon us and as a first time board of education member, it has a different meaning this year. As a consultant, I often deal with the aftermath of city or state negotiations. As a taxpayer, I pay the bill, sometimes disagreeing with how effectively some of those dollars are spent. Now, as a consultant, taxpayer, board of education member, and a mother – the discussions and negotiations have a whole new impact.

(Heads up for Norwalkers reading this – I will not discuss politics, the “he said, she said,” or the blame game that is so easy to get into. This piece is about the higher level realities of the term equity and what a budget represents.)

The Background: Like many states, Connecticut is not in a great financial situation – revenue is stalled or is declining, contractual obligations are rising, and costs for everything continue to increase. In Norwalk, which lies along the “Gold Coast,” essentially the far-reaching suburbs of New York City, we receive a disproportionately low share of the state’s education cost sharing formula (long story about the history of ECS and how high real estate prices make it seem that our community has more wealth than it actually does). The city and the state have underfunded the school district for decades.

The school system is finally on a successful trajectory, there is a Strategic Operating Plan (SOP) guiding the work of the district, a Superintendent and Board of Education that believe in and are actively working to fix many of the structural systemic legacy issues, while also moving the district forward to increase college and career readiness for all students. The results of the first few years of SOP implementation have been profound. The district jumped to the top of its district reference group (comparing “like” districts), and the new state accountability metrics, which value student growth, demonstrate major improvements.

Then, budget season comes around. Without going into the nitty gritty of politics (which don’t really matter for the point of this piece, and noting that similar situations occur across the country every year), the bottom line is that the district’s original budget request will not be fully funded. There is a desire to limit tax increases (legitimately so), tax payers want to limit spending while also wanting more and better services, increasing unfunded state and federal mandates cost more each year, and limited state grants add to the complexity of the situation. The result will be the delayed implementation of many of the SOP initiatives, along with some major reductions to current district spending as well – which will include removing staff and cutting programs – when combined, will inevitably impact academic growth and social-emotional learning. Which, eventually impacts property values and the cycle continues…

Is equity equal? In this city, we often compare our per pupil costs to our neighbors – all of whom spend more than us. While I fully support the sentiment of this approach, it is not the entire story. We not only compete with surrounding towns that fund more per student for staff and for families, but we also have a student population that costs more to educate. We have higher rates of English Language Learners, students eligible for free and reduced price meals (approx 50%), and students that require special education services than many of our competing neighbors. This valuable diversity is a huge advantage to our city and the very reason that many families (including mine) move here in the first place, but it does come with a cost. Our assets increase our liabilities. It is our reality.

Nationally, we talk a lot about equity. But, what does equity mean? Equity does not mean equal resources. Equity is more about the outcomes of those resources. When two students start in different places, they may require different resources to achieve the same outcome. Equal funding for Norwalk students does not necessarily equate to equitable educational opportunities.

A Budget’s Significance: I first heard the statement “a budget is a moral document” when I was in graduate school studying public administration. I don’t know who first stated it, as it’s been attributed to many politicians and community activists (including MLK Jr), but that mindset has stuck with me. A budget truly is a moral document. Where we put our resources demonstrates our priorities. Our priorities should reflect our needs (hat tips to good data collection and root cause analysis to determine those needs!) and the values of our community.

Should we throw money around? Absolutely not. I have seen millions of dollars of federal funds used ineffectively in the school improvement world (often due to lack of fidelity of implementation, lack of alignment between programs and needs, lack of monitoring, and the absence of performance contracting). More money does not necessarily fix a problem. Money that is used efficiently and effectively to target improving systems and structures, and provides appropriate supports to students (and staff) does transform the educational opportunities for students.

Takeaways: There are few easy solutions here and my city is not isolated in this struggle. I see similar scenarios play out across the country. That said, this district has made tremendous growth in just a few short years and I hope that we can continue to value and support that growth. Aside from local politics and the cuts that my fellow board members and will have to make over the next few months, my lasting takeaways include: 1) budgets are moral documents that represent our values and priorities, and 2) equal does not always mean equitable.

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