Rick DuFour Would Run Our New Teacher Orientation . . .

DuFour, R., DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (2008). Revisiting professional learning communities at work: New insights for improving schools. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

The three of you reading this blog are no doubt well-versed in the professional learning community concept, as some form of this team inquiry model has been adopted by many schools. I think the idea deserved recognition early on here in our collection of ideas the perfect school would embrace. Specifically, I think this way of thinking about how to help students learn and grow has a unique potential to be helpful for new teachers.

There are several different models for professional learning communities, I personally have been have trained in the model brought to prominence by Richard DuFour. From my experience with working with teachers new to our profession, the DuFour model’s focused summary of the “work” of a teacher is especially useful in helping new teachers focus on how to prioritize their limited prep time with an emphasis on learning, not teaching. I think the four questions DuFour identifies as the standing agenda for a PLC Team provide a clear (albeit challenging) recipe for how the endless work of teaching should be prioritized. When new teachers have come to me with questions about content coverage and “whether I should be doing” X, Y, or Z I have often referred them to DuFour’s 4 PLC Questions:

1.   What is it that we want our students to learn? What knowledge, skills, and dispositions do we expect them to acquire as a result of this course, grade level, or unit of instruction?

2.   How will we know if each student is learning each of the essential skills, concepts, and dispositions we have deemed most essential?

3.   How will we respond when some of our students do not learn? What process will we put in place to ensure students receive additional time and support for learning in a timely, directive and systematic way?

4.   How will we enrich and extend the learning for students who are already proficient?  (p.183-184)

New teachers could allay much of the anxiety and pressure they feel when they are first charged with teaching a new course if they could sit down with a curriculum outline for the course along with these four questions before they do the inevitable page through the textbook. Too often I think the opposite is happens; new teachers page through the textbook and look at the overwhelming amount of content they assume they are expected to cover, they think of every neat lesson on these topics they have ever seen, and ultimately become overwhelmed with the realization that they could not possible address it all.

New teachers would be better served by the exercise that does not involve the textbook, but rather uses the four PLC questions (and hopefully a curriculum guide that has already been written to identify essential skills), to determine what essential skills students need to take away from the course. Next, the teacher would decide what it would look like if students had mastered these skills and what they could do to support students who struggled to do so. Finally, once the students have mastered these skills, what opportunities could they offer these students to further enrich their learning?

This exercise is admittedly easier blogged than accomplished. However, this distillation of the learner focus teachers should have can be very powerful, especially when taken on as an inquiry process by a team of teachers.

Next On In A Perfect School . . .               Laura Desimone Would Evaluate Our Teacher Professional Development Plan . . .

Doug Reeves Would Write Our SIP Plan . . .

Reeves, D. B. (2011). Finding your leadership focus: What matters most for student results. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Reeves, D. B. (2008). Reframing teacher leadership. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

First of all. Worst. Cover. Ever. The cover of Finding Your Leadership Focus: What Matters Most for Student Results (2011) looks like the worst 1982 self-help book you could find in a Reagan era Kroch’s and Brentano’s. It is really a shame, because I think this 150 page handbook should be at the side of every school administrator. I think it may have had a better chance at best seller status if it just had uh . . ., any other cover.

I bought this book after seeing Reeves’ keynote at the 2010 Learning Forward (formerly NSDC) conference in Atlanta. I was at the conference to present a session on implementation strategies for professional development programs. In my session, I summarized by own research on focus being a major challenge for those of us interested in effective, sustained professional development programs for teachers. So maybe I was primed to hear Reeves’ message, but his indictment of wide and thin implementation cut across a broad range of school reform initiatives far beyond my own interest in professional development. It really resonated.

Reeves’ books are great because he does an excellent job of collecting compelling research along with practical ways to reflect on the impact the findings can have on your own practice in the real world. It was Reeves’ summary of Hattie’s work that made me go back and read Visible Learning, which has become foundational for me personally. His books are unrelenting without being polemic. Can polemic be used as an adjective? Good thing none of the three of you are English teachers.

Reeves basically presents a powerful argument against the idea that our public schools are capable of implementing many new initiatives at the same time (Or at least capable of doing so in a way that would improve student learning). He argues that while there are many valuable foci a school could take on to improve student achievement, a successful reform effort must make choices and select a few excellent improvement programs from this list and dedicate itself to implementing these few initiatives deeply.

He recommends that schools not only be very selective about which new reform efforts they take on (see Hattie), but that they be disciplined in an effort to “weed the garden” of current initiatives in order to ameliorate “initiative fatigue”, a term that will resonate with most public school teachers (p.43; p.1).

The awesome thing about Reeves’ work, however, is that he doesn’t just rant about these ideas, but he also provides practical exercises, graphic organizers, self-assessments, and additional resources a school can use to try to practice what he preaches.

One of my favorite exercises he suggests in the book requires only a white board and a marker. He challenges school leaders to make a list of all of the initiatives they have adopted, and then draw a line and list all of the ones they have evaluated and eliminated within the last five years. Anyone in our profession can imagine what the likely distribution of those two lists would look like!

As a practicing school administrator, I can understand what critics might not like about this book. They might say the idea of deeply implementing a few initiatives is naive and unrealistic in a public, comprehensive high school with competing constituencies and demands.

I think Reeves actually answered these critics in an earlier book, Reframing Teacher Leadership (2008). In this earlier work, Reeves compiled extensive research on whether the depth of the implementation of a given reform is correlated with indicators of student achievement. This study found that there was a correlation, but that it was not linear.

In his discussion of the results, Reeves argues that one of the biggest challenges reformers face is “the myth of linearity,” under which educators assume that there is a one-to-one correlation between how deeply an initiative is implemented and how much it impacts student results (p.39). He noted that we too often fall prey to the assumption that minor implementation will equal minor achievement gains and moderate implementation will result in moderate achievement gains. Instead, the study indicated that the impact of implementation is nonlinear and that even moderate gains of student achievement are only realized once a reform has reached an extensive level of implementation.

Doug Reeves would write our School Improvement Plan because the plan would be short. The plan would identify a few powerful things we could work on to improve student learning, and then explain an action plan with goals, names, and due dates. It would also include a plan for monitoring the actions of the adults in charge of implementing the plan to chart their progress and identify ways to support them. The adults in charge of implementing the plan would not be given the excuse inherent in an unrealistically long list of so-called “priorities”.

Next On In A Perfect School . . .               Rick DuFour Would Run Our New Teacher Orientation. . .

John Hattie Would Be Our Principal . . .

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to             achievement. London: Routledge.

In a perfect school, John Hattie would be our principal. Uh .  . . OK, so I’ve never seen this researcher from New Zealand in person, so he may not actually possess the minimum requisite soft skills a perfect principal in a perfect school would have. But if he just made it to the goofy charmingness level of my favorite New Zealanders Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie (Flight of the Conchords) his research would more than compensate for any remaining deficit in the area of gladhanding.

Hattie’s Visible Learning (2009) is a genius concept that is really well executed. Basically, he develops a really convincing argument that he was able to apply a statistical analysis to thousands of different quantitative studies on like topics in order to conclude the aggregate effect size of a litany of instructional initiatives, educational policies, and student characteristics. He compiled “a total of about 800 meta-analyses, which encompassed 52,637 studies, and provided 146,142 effect sizes […] these studies are based on many millions of students” (p.15). An effect size (d) of 1.0 would show a one standard deviation gain on a normal curve, or an increase of 34.13 percentiles.

Hattie scoured this body of research in an attempt to determine the effect size of a litany of “things” [my word] that educators have identified as variables in whether or not some students learn more or less than others. He labels these things as  “contributions” and categorizes them into  (1) students, (2) homes, (3) schools, (4) teachers, (5) curricula and (6) teaching approaches (p.31) . He then highlights the contributions that can attain what he called “desired effects” with d = 0.40 or higher and are therefore attributable to the specific interventions or methods being researched, not just the developmental progress of the child or typical teacher effects. That means these would be things where the time and resources spent focusing on them would have a huge payoff for our students.

Unfortunately, many of the methods and interventions that gain traction in education reform movements are not supported in his research by an effect size strong enough to impact student learning beyond expected cognitive development or typical teacher effects. In other words, they do not benefit students any more than if that program never occurred. The time and resources spent learning and implemented these reforms would not be well spent.

Moreover, the worst programs can actually yield effect sizes below zero, meaning that the student achievement was negatively impacted by their implementation. This is due to the opportunity costs of ill-conceived reform efforts, including teachers missing class time to receive training and instructional planning time redirected towards implementing the new program. If this opportunity cost is not recouped by a powerful intervention or instructional method that ultimately increases student achievement, the net impact of the initiative could be negative.

John Hattie would be our principal because he would provide a compelling argument that we should be careful about where we place our reform efforts in order to ensure we cannot only justify the expenditure of time and resources, but get a big bang for our buck in terms of improved student achievement. He would harness the staff of our school in a focused effort on fewer “things” that would net a major impact on moving kids towards high targets.

Next On In A Perfect School . . .               Doug Reeves Would Write Our SIP Plan . . .

What is This Blog?

September 8, 2011

As leaders, the nature of  our jobs sometimes requires us to work towards what is “doable” within the constraints of many different constituencies, rather than what we believe to be the theoretically ideal thing for kids. Letting the perfect become the enemy of the good in schools rarely results in positive outcomes for students, can sap your energy to continue to “fight the good fight”, and can sometimes be an irresponsible waste of valuable time and resources.

Which brings us to the purpose of this blog. It will be an outlet for me to self-indulgently make the perfect the enemy of the good. In short, it will pontificate on what could be, what would be, “in a perfect school”.

Luckily for you, my 3 readers, it will not be my personal pontifications. In a Perfect School will feature my personal “shout-outs” to the great ideas others have had that I believe could impact the lives of kids if they were more often implemented. Most will be ideas from respectable, professional educators and experts. Some will be from geniuses not officially in the education fraternity. All will be ideas I admire. All would be evident in the perfect school.

Next On In A Perfect School . . .               John Hattie would be our Principal . . .