Sunday, October 11, 2009

Some additions to those levers

Rereading my "Four Levers for Chairman Brothers" post, I realized that some things that I took for granted maybe weren't obvious in how I set out my ideas. Here come some added notes to that analysis, connecting it to issues I've blogged about often over the last nine months.

1. I'm confident that the educators who work with our children are nearly all willing and nearly all able to take their work to a significantly higher level. When we're working on a very big change, we have to assume some will decide they don't want to make the shift, and a few will be overwhelmed or permanently hostile--but I truly believe it will only be a few.

2. We've spent years wanting teachers to switch to a very different pattern of teaching. We're asking for classrooms to be built around standards, around checking steadily to see which students are reaching the standards, and around constant adaptation to push toward every student mastering required knowledge and skills. We're asking for a lot from our teachers.

3. At times, we've acted as though explaining what's needed would make it happen. Now though, we know that incoming teachers have been reading about the key practices in their education practices for years, just as veterans have been hearing about them during PD days. The missing piece is not exposure to the ideas. If we believed that once, we cannot believe it now.

4. At times, we've clearly thought that adding carrots or sticks would be enough to get educators to apply the changes. We've tried rewards, and we've tried sanctions, and we've tried the promise-or-threat of intervention. We've talked about performance pay and suggested to parents that they bail out of weak schools. Often, we've compared all of that to the discipline of a free market, forgetting that the free market operates with lots and lots of failure: for every business that survives, the market crushes several in the dust. Again, if we once believed incentives would do the job, we can't believe that any more.

5. That's why the crucial step is changing school cultures. The culture that will transform teaching is one of professional learning communities and leadership intensely focused on instruction. That culture gives each teacher support to make the changes, including frank feedback, steady professional development, and a team of colleagues to keep sorting through what's effective and what isn't for each student.

6. The big change in culture must mainly be built at the local level, in individual schools and districts. State officials will never be the main actors.

7. Nevertheless, the state can make an important contribution. Right now, the things the Department can do quickly involve the quality of teacher evaluations, professional development, and principal evaluations, and the thing the Board can do quickly is focus a few more local boards on how deeply their districts need to change. Those things are the levers I commended to the Chairman.

8. Plenty of other improvements would also help. 185 days of instruction and 15 added days in a standard teaching contract. Teacher preparation program already focused on standards, formative assessment, data analysis, and differentiated instruction, delivered in a practicum-intensive format. Stronger entry-level salaries. Staff support to make the principalship a "do-able" job. Robust recruitment programs for teachers, teacher-leaders, and principals. I don''t mean to discount those steps--though I do think it's important to suggest the ones that can work even while the state treasury continues to be very bare.


  1. Susan,

    I certainly hope you will not perceive my retort as a disparagement of your viewpoint and work to further the discussion on the topic of student achievement; this certainly is not my intent. What often is missing, however, from such "prescriptions" as you have set forth is rich, first-hand knowledge (i.e., actual experience working in the trenches as opposed to doing desk audits based on available data)of the complexities involved in making needed resources available to education professionals who work to improve achievement for "all" students.

    Having served two school districts as a "hands-on-in-the-schools-and-classroom" superintendent of schools from 1990-2003, worked as a VPAT consultant for three local school districts not having met NCLB goals, and now supervising teachers in training by working with them in their classroom settings, I do not disagree that the PLC model would work well as a catalyst for bringing individual students' academic needs to the fore in schools and school districts. However, my in-the-trenches experience tempers my enthusiasm for the PLC concept as a panacea in that what often occurs in the practice is that school-level learning communities do a good job in the identification of resources (e.g., time, materials, equipment, and professional expertise) needed to move student achievement forward for individual students; however, deployment of needed resources is almost always dependent on their availability. With budgets already slashed severely for extended school services programs, supplies, professional development, and equipment "and" looming cuts for reading and math grants that provide a plethroa of additional resources, PLC professionals risk becoming extremely frustrated, even ineffective,when needed resources for individual students are not available. A change in schools' organizational culture will only go so far toward solving the problem without a concomitant commitment on the part of state and federal legislators to ensure "continual" availability of "all" needed resources.

  2. Jim,

    I share your grief over the cuts past and pending, and your admiration of educators who push forward as the resources shrink. I really do.

    But no matter what happens fiscally, it's time to do the right things in schools and districts. Most are working on it, and most have improvement to show for it.

    Some are still brazenly saying in public that progress just isn't possible, and it's time for that to stop.


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