Archive for Schools

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, both 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.

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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 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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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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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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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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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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