Archive for Schools

Ensuring Equity Work is Systemic

State Education Agencies, districts, and schools across the country are talking about equity. Researchers, think tanks, and funders are too. Equity audits, equity policies, equity officers, abound. All of this is great, but how are those systems, processes, policies, and procedures are changing due to all of this equity work? If what the adults do every day isn’t changing, is the equity discussion truly making a difference? I believe equity is the removal of systemic barriers that allows an educational system to serve each child what they need to succeed.

A recent EdWeek article on district/CMO equity officers reminded me of some of the lessons I’ve learned and observed from working with schools, districts, and states.

  1. Senior leaders, and the broader community, must decide what equity means to them and their system (school, district, or state). It’s really difficult to make progress if there isn’t a shared definition or vision of what you’re aspiring to achieve.
  2. While it’s important to name one person in charge of equity for accountability and implementation purposes, it’s crucial that the entire leadership team owns the equity work and understands each senior leaders role in making changes.
  3. Equity work must be supported by resources – resources that may include people, time, money, and programs. These may be new additional resources or may be reallocated or repurposed from existing resources. To say that you’re working on equity without providing the needed resources to make changes and implement practices is like selling fool’s gold as the real thing.
  4. Monitoring equity requires disaggregation of data – which may go beyond what the state requires according to ESSA subgroups – i.e. while a state may require data disaggregated based on poverty or special education or English Language Learner identification, schools and districts should still disaggregate data to ensure that policies and procedures don’t have adverse impacts on specific and traditionally underserved subgroups of students (i.e. African American males, Latinos, etc). This type of analysis is where we’re seeing conflicting information in many districts – the achievement gaps are closing (great!), but discipline data shows racial and gender gaps (not good) that still need to be addressed from a systemic level.

Doing equity work and doing it right is not for the faint of heart. It requires commitment from leadership (chief/superintendent/principal) and elected officials (boards of education). It requires courageous conversations in communities, but those conversations only get us so far. More importantly, it requires courageous actions to truly change how the educational systems and structures serve them every day.

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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 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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Discriminatory suspension data

During the 2011-12 school year, black/African American children accounted for 16% of the United States student population, yet accounted for 32% of students suspended and 42% of those expelled (according to DOE data). With a stagnant white-black achievement gap that has not budged since the 1960s, what’s the impact of these suspension rates on performance? Bottom line: Kids who aren’t in the classroom aren’t learning.

A study published in the journal Social Problems by University of Kentucky sociologist Edward Morris and Indiana University sociologist Brea Perry concludes that school suspensions account for roughly one-fifth of the white-black achievement gap. This study controlled for many of the factors that some argue contribute to this discipline gap – such as income, gender, and participation in special education – and found that black students were suspended at three times the rate as their white peers.

The answer is not to just simply stop suspending students; rather, future work should consider the contributing factors to discrepancies in black and white suspension rates and should help to identify ways to introduce revised disciplinary policies into school environments, while maintaining or improving the educational environment for all students. Some schools and districts have implemented restorative justice programs to offer an alternative to suspension – these programs focus on rehabilitation of the offenders through reconciliation with victims and the school community. Yet as Ilana Zafran, COO of Umoja Student Development Corporation notes, the biggest problem is patience – people want immediate results but changing a culture and restorative justice takes time. I also recently met with school staff in Ann Arbor Michigan where the principals come to classrooms to address behavior and discipline issues – as opposed to sending the students to the principal’s office. Given these research findings, it is imperative that we find alternatives to suspension and better monitor (and adjust) the equity of discipline referrals, as  key components to closing achievement gaps.

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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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