Archive for Districts

Practicing what I preach

I recently embarked upon a new journey. After a few years writing case studies on effective school board practices (New Haven and Wichita) and developing a training program for local school boards across the country, I took a leap and am now on a local school board. I’m learning a lot, and I also recognize that my work experience from the past decade brings a wealth of information, research, strategies, and contacts to the board and the district. Remembering to practice what I preach is a continuous challenge and one that I hope results in improved educational opportunities for students in my community and for continued professional growth for my company. For some more information about why I ran for the the position and what I hope to bring, see the blog post from ConnCAN linked here or the text of which is copied below…

I’ve worked in the education reform space for over a decade, so ensuring that all of Connecticut’s kids have access to a quality education is important to me.  Quality education is not only a civil right, but it is also how we advance as a country, a society, and within the increasing global world. While I know many people believe that our kids need a great education, it takes on a different meaning once you are a parent. Thinking about what the school system will provide for my toddler-aged son is one of the reasons I decided to run for the Norwalk Board of Education. The changes I strive to make now will influence the education my son and his peers will receive when formal schooling begins in a few years.

Prior to running for and joining the Board of Education, I was part of the design team that helped to launch Board Watch, a grassroots effort involving community volunteers who are trained to observe and hold their local school boards accountable via evaluations of meeting conduct. I believe that bringing transparency and accountability to public officials is always important. When I first moved to Norwalk, I was concerned about the rhetoric and the perception of the school board. While I didn’t have children at the time, it didn’t make me any less concerned about the public education system and the quality of life for our kids. If we want to see change, we can’t wait for others to make it happen for us. It’s easy to sit back and critique, but the hard work comes when we choose to roll up our sleeves, listen to other’s perspectives, assess the need, create a plan, implement the work, and monitor the outcomes.  

With a busy education consulting company and an even busier toddler, I didn’t plan on running for the Board of Education, but the opening occurred and the situation presented itself. I hope that I can use this opportunity to maximize my impact in public education during the remaining two years of this term.  I look forward to working with my fellow board members to assess the district’s needs, ask tough questions, and support changes that will directly benefit students. Too often we see adults’ personal feelings become involved and decisions are made not in the best interest of our kids.

With the state’s current economic situation, it’s clear Connecticut is at a crossroads. We’re going to need a strong workforce that is prepared to take the jobs that will help our economy flourish. I hope to use this position as a board member to uplift our kids and to help provide them with the education that will lead to their success.

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New Brief! Targeting subgroup achievement gaps – lessons from Ann Arbor, MI

At one time, over 90% of Ann Arbor’s schools were identified for performance issues due to large achievement gaps between the lowest performing and the highest performing. Within a few short years, the district exited the vast majority of those schools from status and demonstrated improvement in a number of school indicators (enrollment, discipline, academic performance, etc). This document, released by the Center on School Turnaround at WestEd, profiles the steps the district implemented to change how the adults act and better support the students. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Focusing on Achievement Gaps

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New Resources! Integrating Resources to Implement School and District Improvement Cycles

This set of resources, released by the Council of Chief State School Officers, is designed to help SEAs, LEAs, and schools through the school and district improvement cycle. The resources braid together some of the latest thinking on the improvement cycle, Strategic Performance Management, and needs assessments. The overview of the cycle includes a description of each step, coaching tips, and suggestions of tools that could be useful. The work was started by the state members at a School and District Improvement collaborative meeting, sponsored by CCSSO, in June 2017 (SDI SCASS). The resource was released by CCSSO, and staff/consultants from the Center on School Turnaround at WestEd, the Building State Capacity and Productivity Center, and several SEAs contributed to the final resources. The main document is a PDF, and 3 of the 4 tools are available as Word documents that can be downloaded and adapted by users.

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Cause and effect of principals rating teachers accurately

Despite years of SEAs encouraging/requiring/begging districts and school principals to rate teachers more accurately, two recent studies (here and here) highlighted in an EdWeek article show that there has been little improvement in this area. One of the pullout quotes in the article is from a principal in Delaware. She states, “Somebody’s job is in your hands.” This statement is accurate and teacher evaluations should be taken very seriously, but as a principal, the futures of hundreds of students are in your hands every day. While a low rating could potentially cost an educator his/her job, the system should be designed to support that person improve over a specified time period. But, we must get back to the impact on the students.

Not accurately rating a teacher for ineffective performance (if warranted) makes it more difficult 1) for subsequent principals to provide accurate ratings (i.e. “I’ve never been rated poorly, this isn’t accurate!”) 2) to obtain the professional development that may be needed for that teacher, 3) to remove that teacher if performance doesn’t improve, and 4) most importantly, an inaccurate rating could harm classrooms of students for years. Based on these reports (in addition to the original TNTP report), as well as working schools and districts identified for performance issues, it it clear that simply requiring principals to rate teachers more effectively isn’t the solution.

This is a multifaceted issue and requires deep analysis and a number of solutions. Some of the areas that must be examined for root cause and possible solutions include: providing appropriate training for principals on both assessing the quality of instruction AND providing constructive feedback to staff, streamlining paperwork burdens (so that it is easier for principals to rate teachers ineffectively and provide them services), supporting principals with PD provision for the lower rated staff, providing high quality professional development to support staff that are rated ineffective (so that they can improve in a reasonable time frame), providing additional instructional support to the students in classrooms with teachers rated ineffective (so that they continue learning), and increasing the teacher pipeline (so that if ineffective teachers choose to leave or are removed, that there are people to replace them).

Some educators that I’ve met with over the years have also proposed tying a principal’s evaluation to the effectiveness of their teachers (i.e. Are the teachers improving their proficiency and effectiveness? Do the teacher ratings correlate with the performance/trajectory of the student body?). I fully agree that teachers should not solely be accountable for student performance. All of the adults in the education system play a critical role and should be accountable for how their actions impact student learning.

These areas can be complicated, filled with additional barriers, and are not easy or quick wins. But, putting the most effective teachers in front of our students should be an absolute priority in every single classroom across the country.

Ann Arbor, Michigan and New Haven, CT also recently revamped their teacher evaluation policies and interviews with staff from both of those cities demonstrated promising results.

 

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New! Tactical Guide for Needs Assessments

This tactical guide recently produced by the Center on School Turnaround and the Council of Chief State School Officers describes the core components for developing and administering needs assessments for improvement. Worksheets are included to aid users in designing and developing needs assessments for schools and/or districts. A companion document includes the worksheets in a format that can be completed (forthcoming).

The guide includes, for example, specific guidance and questions for SEAs and LEAs to consider as they develop an needs assessment or hire an external provider to complete one, and then utilize its results as part of their planning, implementation, and monitoring processes.

The guide also includes information on ESSA requirements, planning a needs assessment, designing a needs assessment, how a needs assessment is part of the improvement process, and key decision points.

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Usefullness of Classroom Walkthroughs

Classroom walkthroughs are a crucial tool for school leaders to get a gage learning in their school and for teachers to get some immediate feedback on areas that they might not normally be able to see alone. But, classroom walkthroughs can be done well or poorly. Some useful tips that I’ve picked up from school and district leaders over the years:

  • DO provide same day feedback for every walkthrough – either via email if using an ipad to monitor, or via a small slip of paper in the teacher’s mailbox)
  • Do Focus on a few key areas – a walkthrough is very different than a full classroom observation. It’s impossible to see everything in 3-6 minutes, so identify a few areas to focus on and DON’T provide negative feedback to a teacher if you didn’t see something (i.e. group work) if you only saw part of a class. You may have missed the group work section.
  • DO look for real learning – what level questions is the teacher asking? What type of thinking do the assignments require?
  • DO look for classroom management techniques and positive teacher-student relationships – these should be apparent in a classroom in 1 minute or 1 hour. They can make or break learning from occurring, so always keep an eye on it.
  • DO walkthroughs regularly – their benefit is their frequency
  • DO encourage others to do walkthroughs in the school (i.e. other district administrators or fellow teachers). But, if this is done, ensure that all observers understand appropriate protocol (i.e. being a fly on the wall, not distracting students, also providing feedback, etc)
  • DO use the results of many walkthroughs to inform school-wide professional development needs.

Some additional thoughts about walkthroughs are found in this EdWeek story.

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The Challenges of Change

Even when change is absolutely necessary (i.e. the debt of Chicago Public Schools continues to grow and the current operating budget is not sustainable), education leaders must fight for every possible change. I completely agree that school closings are necessary, but they must be done strategically and we must analyze the unintended consequences of closing each school. The bottom line is that CPS cannot continue to run so many half-full (and often low-performing) schools. The below Editorial doesn’t acknowledge the other issues that must also be addressed in order to successfully and safely close schools (i.e. students crossing gang lines to get to new schools, long(er) commuting times, increased difficulty for parents to get to the schools, lack of a neighborhood/community hub, and the lack of higher-performing schools for students to attend), but it does address many of the reasons why the schools must be closed in the first place.

An editorial from today’s Chicago Tribune:

By Dec. 1, Chicago Public Schools officials must deliver to state lawmakers a list of schools slated to close at the end of this school year. The district will release its criteria for making those decisions this week.

As many as 120 Chicago schools are likely to be on the chopping block because the district faces a $1 billion budget gap next year. And the following year.

This is a critical moment for CPS and its new CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett. Make no mistake: This will be painful. But scores of schools must be closed.

There are more than 100,000 empty seats in schools because CPS badly mismanaged its real estate portfolio over the past decade. Overall district enrollment has declined by 34,000 students since 2003. CPS built new schools to relieve overcrowding in some communities but failed to close enough of the older, emptier ones, often caving to community pressure.

Reality check: Keeping half-used buildings open is a huge financial drain the system can’t afford.

CPS says it can save about $800,000 a year in operating costs by closing a school and reassigning kids to schools that have extra space. It also avoids the cost of capital improvements, and could generate some revenue through property sales.

Those closings alone won’t eliminate this huge budget gap. But CPS simply can’t operate more schools — heat more buildings, patch more roofs — than its students need.

One of the first major tests for Byrd-Bennett is how compellingly the district makes its case to Chicagoans — particularly parents of CPS students — that neighborhood schools must close. She needs to deliver a clear explanation of the district’s strategy. Byrd-Bennett and her boss, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, need to build community support for these closings. They should start making the case now by stressing two major points:

•Many of those half-empty schools not only drain resources, they rank among the district’s worst performers. CPS should first close schools that are underenrolled and poor performers. Scores of schools fit that profile.

•Displaced students can benefit academically if they transfer to a higher-quality school. That’s the conclusion of a 2009 University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research study of 18 elementary schools closed from 2001 to 2006. “Displaced students who enrolled in new schools with high average achievement had larger gains in both reading and math than students who enrolled in receiving schools with lower average achievement,” the study said.

That could be a huge selling point for CPS to parents. No, not every student will be able to move to a much better-performing school; sadly, there aren’t enough in the system. But closing half-empty underperformers and boosting investment in the remaining schools should massively increase the odds that a child will transfer to a better school.

We know this will be a painful and emotional time for parents, teachers and students. Many parents don’t want to send their kids to another school, no matter how abysmal the neighborhood school performs. There are legitimate safety issues in some neighborhoods.

The Chicago Teachers Union should help guide CPS closings, not stand in the doorway of every school, shouting “No!”

And then there are the politicians. We expect state legislators who unwisely tried to meddle in earlier closings and turnarounds to try again with this round. They may have company: Some 33 aldermen are calling for City Council hearings on the closings, demanding to know which schools are being targeted for closing and under what criteria.

That can be helpful if the goal is to inform parents, not to delay the inevitable. We understand the impulse to save neighborhood schools. But this isn’t a matter of CPS whim. This is about the creating a sustainable budget for the district and its 404,000 students.

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