Archive for Schools

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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