Sunday, August 24, 2014

Values and Beliefs Impact the School Scorecard

            The other day, a colleague asked my opinion on the contents of a school scorecard. She shared an example from a school which set my thoughts in motion. As I prep to lead an upcoming graduate level course on school program evaluation, I find myself considering the role of values and beliefs in influencing what is considered as valuable data. The powerful external accountability policies at the state and federal level have overwhelmed the discussion on what constitutes school successes. Yet most educators would quickly say that there is more to school quality than test scores.
            The Balanced Scorecard developed by Robert Kaplan and David Norton and described in The Institute Way provides a resource for schools and other organizations to determine how they will measure success. Johnson and Bonaiuto (2008) described how the Needham (MA) School District used the model to identify the qualities of an excellent school, the core competencies graduates should have, and strategies to know if these competencies are achieved. Using a broad group of stakeholders, test scores were mentioned but were not the central element in what constituted success for a school. Instead elements such as safety, student engagement, quality teaching, preparing students for the real world, communication with stakeholders, clean, attractive school campuses, going to college, and diversity were identified as important in an excellent school.
            What process would you use to determine the answers to the three Needham School District guiding statements? How would the responses determine what type of data was collected and schools evaluated? The solutions surface the shared values and beliefs of the school community.

Johnson, G. & Bonaiuto, S., 2008, Accountability with Roots, Educational Leadership, 66, 4, 26-29.

Rohm, H., Wilsey, D., Stout Perry, G., & Montgomery, D., 2013, The Institute Way,  The Institute Press, Cary, NC.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Part 2: And Now the What

As you recall from the previous entry, the district was tasked with the challenge of reducing harassment and bullying among students. A program, Caring School Communities, had been selected for use in the K-6 setting but a nagging feeling that this would not prompt change continued to exist, if only implicitly.

Before implementation planning could begin, the core issue needed to be identified. A look at limited data provided some valuable evidence. One key was the fact that over half the district elementary teachers perceived that harassment and bullying were either a “large problem” or “somewhat a problem” on a survey the previous spring. Additionally, nearly 40% of surveyed K-12 parents conveyed the same sentiment. To complicate matters, the process that principals used to store student behavior data varied across the district, making the collection of past data somewhat problematic.

The general perception was that students need stronger ability to solve social problems and demonstrate interpersonal skills and that teachers need support to guide students in building those skills. Improving school culture became the clear need in order to provide a safe and supportive school learning environment.

With a more explicit identification of the problem, the justification for the decision to adopt the CSC program increased. Principals now had a commonly-identified rationale for implementation that would support them as they led their staffs. We now turned to identifying the desired outcomes and how to evaluate their presence. 

Generating a variety of options, it became clear that loss of class time was an issue due to playground and classroom student social problems. The district has had a standing focus on improving attendance but loss of instructional time for school day issues had not received equal billing. And now it did!  The team’s views coalesced around improving school culture as seen by decreasing the amount of class time lost due to harassment and bullying.

Next up, the team tackled probably the most difficult task, identifying what data to collect and how to store the data for reliable retrieval. As the group struggled with the topic, I wondered if the difficulty formulating what to collect and store were associated with an overreliance on anecdotal data in general. With perseverance, the team crafted a process for collecting and storing the data. This aspect of the workshop required strong teamworking skills to openly challenge and suggest options until the best solution became apparent. The team came away with a system for monitoring incidents as well as the utilization of specific research-based actions. The team recognized that the CSC program must be implemented with fidelity for its impact to be realized.

In the end, the team crafted a plan for a district-wide, K-12 school climate and culture impact. Caring School Communities, while the explicit change, is intended to improve school climate by reducing lost classroom time. Since previous data was limited,  a set of five SMART goals focused on both process and outcome measures. The three of the five outcomes involved a commitment to fidelity to implement weekly class meetings, a cross-age buddy program involving all elementary classes, and conducting at least three school-wide spirit-building activities during the school year for elementary, middle and high schools. The other two goals measure the impact of such efforts by monitoring change in the amount of incidents that involve harassment and bullying, both with and without class time being lost, and a tri-annual school climate survey completed by staff and students. 

As teacher training is to begin and plans shared for implementing the changes, it will be interesting to see if the time spent focusing on problem identification, desired outcomes, and SMART goals will be impactful. Judging from one principal’s gratitude at participating in the process, I believe it will be. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Part 1: Why before How and What

I recently completed serving as a facilitator of a multi-day workshop intending to support the implementation of a district initiative. I had the good fortune to work with a group of highly-motivated, exceptional school administrators whose ability to collaborate is clearly a strength. In this entry and the next, I will document the process we followed to identify a strong set of outcomes extremely likely to create a successful rollout by securing a strong focus, commitment, capacity-building, and monitoring system.

Last spring, the administrative team identified a research-based program, Caring Schools Community© (CSC), to implement at grades K-6 in the fall. A recent review of the district’s history identified at least three past K-6 programs that began in a similar manner that included district expectations for principals and teachers. Sadly, these efforts faded without ever knowing the amount of teachers utilizing the program’s resources or impact of the effort. In these cases, implementation began with a “what we are going to do”. Yet this approach failed to generate enthusiasm and staying power. Adding to the mix, each time the district invested significant financial and time resources, and the plans called for the same with CSC. 

While efforts to improve how students interacted with each other have always garnered support, the need to significantly impact student behavior has never been greater. With harassment and bullying on the forefront of the public’s mind for numerous reasons including increased internet access, school districts are tasked with getting this right. It is no longer acceptable to act from the mindset that “boys will be boys, and girls will be girls.” A research-based program with two ½ day trainings, CSC needed a strong implementation plan in order to influence classroom instruction and student behavior. I realized that something different needed to be done for CSC to have an impact and not end up on the “this too will pass” pile.

Simon Sinek (2010) laid out a simple plan for gaining support by first focusing on 'why' by asking for your beliefs, your purpose. Begin by answering 'why' rather than 'what'.  So the admin team temporarily put aside the ‘what’ (CSC) and looked at the ‘why’. And what they found was remarkable!

Conversations among the team led to the surfacing of the belief that by respecting and valuing differences, the feeling tone at a school, or school culture, would improve. The team shared its belief that school needs to have a safe and supportive setting. So despite already having selected the ‘what’, the team reflected on the ‘why’. In other words, the problem involved improving school culture. We now needed a bridge from the belief to the action.

That passage involved identifying how we would accomplish this. Further discussions grappled with a common challenge, surfacing strategies that could serve as indicators of success.  During this time, the team recalled the long-standing focus, school attendance, to help them to formulate the operational problem- students were missing too much class time due to behaviors that occur outside the classroom. So with dialogue and debate, the team established that it wanted to reduce lost instructional time due to harassment and bullying and in so doing this would indicate improvements in school culture. That was a remarkable awareness and something that would not have become apparent without describing the problem and focusing on beliefs.

Next up: How the team went from ‘identifying the problem’ and ‘how to address it’ to ‘what it will do’.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

What We Think Is Important Influences Actions

            There are two major components in the common core math standards, mathematical practices and content standards. The mathematical practices describe a variety of expertises desired of students in demonstrating and using math knowledge. In my mind, this is the major shift in the new math standards and poses the greatest challenge to implementation. Just because the standards clearly describe the mathematical practices does not mean teachers will interpret, problem-solve, and adjust instruction to incorporate the strategies. Research-based professional learning activities are not the tradition one-time fare. Instead the focus seeks to take new learning and then be supported by coaching, instructional rounds, lesson studies, and other active learning activities.  
            I maintain that the likelihood of assimilation into the classroom begins with surfacing the values of the staff. The level of fidelity to the common core math standards relies on clarifying values (what’s important to us) to help establish the purpose and function of the changes. Surfacing shared values provides the basis for constructive working relationships to participate in the active learning components of professional learning. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Challenge of Implementation

Recently, a friend wrote me in response to article that I had forwarded to him. The article was "Why Americans Stink at Math" and was referenced in my previous blog. Here is my response to his comments.

I agree that patience and the possibility of change are necessary as the system seeks to assimilate the math changes. The public understanding of the purpose of common core math must align with their expectations. And in our public schools, the purpose and best ways to reach the mission are often the subject of divisive politics. This topic alone can be the subject of an extended dialogue.

Currently, our schools graduate a certain percentage of students ready for college-level mathematics. Each fall college freshman enter the universities as engineering, mathematics, and physical and life science majors prepared for the course of study. These students are successful given the multiple variables associated with traditional public school approach and parent values.

We also know that a significant portion is not ready for this level of learning. While not everyone is cut out to be an engineer, scientist, medical doctor, or mathematician, the opinion exists that our country needs a greater amount of students coming from our high schools prepared for such learning. From my experience, there are too many students unable to access the type of learning offered in our public schools. While statistics purport that improvements have been seen over the last twenty years, the public school system by and large is not set up for the type of increases desired.

With a mandate to educate the masses that began in earnest during the early 20th century in order to support our industrialized economy. public school successes (and failures) met a tolerable level. Always the subject of political fodder, public schools have nevertheless achieved the purpose that the systemic architecture fostered (i.e. age-based, homogeneous learning).

The changing world of the 21st century where globalization, access to knowledge, and communication media have upended the apple cart has stretched the public school model to meet this need. What we are seeing throughout our economy is a customization of services. From clothing to food to technology, the available options have multiplied exponentially.

And that leads me to ask how can we customize education so that there are more successes leaving high schools? Charter schools, pilot schools, schools-within-schools are examples of customizing the options. But can public schools accomplish this as well?

Returning to common core math instruction, can the instruction that is required for common core math occur for everyone or must it occur in a niche? Are we setting ourselves up for failure by mandating this instructional process uniformly across all schools, all classrooms?

For the record, I am a proponent of the common core math standards. I believe that through it, students can develop greater mathematical reasoning and communication skills. I worry about our ability to implement with fidelity.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Focusing on Common Core Math Implementation

            In a recent blog, (“How to solve big problems: Lessons learned from cancer scientists”, the author cites the personal example of his sister’s cure from leukemia as an example of how a focus on finding the solution to one type of cancer brought success. Research doctors who met with success in treating leukemia were then able to apply their findings successfully to other types of cancer. Clear concludes that when “you’re facing a complex problem or trying to do something bold, start with a smaller version of the larger problem. Focus exclusively on that small problem and solve it.”
            Shortly after reading this opinion, I stumbled upon a provocatively titled New Your Times Magazine article, “Why Americans Stink at Math”. My curiosity and annoyance in the title encouraged me to read it. The author points out the commonly shared statistics and stories of math learning in America and then cites the successes found by Japanese teachers who had the opportunity to develop their math teaching skills. Curiously, the type of math teaching that brought student successes was developed in the United States and promoted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Unfortunately, the recommended pedagogy did not take hold in America. Following in the tracks of other math reform efforts, fears of the same cycle of failure exist for the common core math standards. What the author holds out as key in changing student learning is teacher learning. Lesson studies, collaboration with peers, and opportunity to study the art of teaching are examples of strategies to build teacher learning to implement common core math.
            So how are school districts tackling the complex problem of implementing the common core math standards? Is this complex problem probed to identify the key factors likely to have the greatest impact? And what are they?  And if professional learning is identified as the key variable, how can the scope be focused so that classroom instruction is impacted? What is the small problem that can be solved?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Formatively speaking...

     Do you remember your first attempts to ride a bicycle, roller blade, or drive a car? Odds are you needed the help of someone who was watching you and who gave specific advice. Formatively speaking, your skills were formed based on trial and error coupled with feedback. Learning occurred based on someone observing your effort and advising you shortly thereafter.
     In the classroom, this type of support is replicated when a teacher adjusts instruction based on what he/she observes from a student. Formative assessment aims towards mastery of a skill, concept, or behaviors. In contrast, grades are used to evaluate student learning in a summative manner as if the time for teaching and learning has been completed. While there is a place for summative feedback, the impact of formative assessments guides the students to new levels of learning. 
     Knowing how the new Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) testing has grabbed the news, I am interested in hearing how you may be using formative assessments to guide students to reach the common core standards' results.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

High School Exit Exam

A recent article on the impact of the common core standards on the California High School Exam (CAHSEE) grabbed my attention. First, I support, not surprisingly, the use of an assessment tool to show levels of achievement. Yet even under the old standards, CAHSEE measured skills well below 12th grade. It focused on standards found in the 7th through 9th grades. Even the feds' NCLB expectation for passing the CAHSEE, referred to euphemistically as 'proficient', is higher than what California requires to pass this test. Due to its political consequences, the CAHSEE benchmark level was lowered thereby reducing its impact. So is this test truly a high school exit exam?

The more rigorous expectations of the common core standards make the current CAHSEE expectations even weaker. Indeed, raising the bar would lower the passing rate and create a political furor. As mentioned in the article, there are those who believe that vulnerable student groups would be more unlikely to not pass and not receive a high school diploma.

So what is the solution? Let's rename the test for what it actually measures, basic skills. And then let's raise the expectations to better align with common core. Students who pass the high school basic skills test would then have a stamp placed on their diploma showing this level of achievement. Let's make this level of ability something we point out rather than punish and then let the colleges and job market decide how to handle the results. 

I can tell you from firsthand experience, the current CAHSEE can be passed by nearly all regular education students prior to completing 12thgrade except those whose English literacy is below Intermediate on the CELDT.  But if the student completes the required course of study for graduation, a diploma should be awarded. Then the newly minted California test of high school basic skills test (CBaST) seal would demonstrate a higher level of minimum performance but not be tied down by the political fuss of lower graduation rates.