Learning is Reflected in the Task

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Designing a guaranteed, viable curriculum, one that allows teachers and students to focus on depth and avoid the consequences of breadth, is not enough. Engaging students in their learning through active learning strategies, so that students are doing more of the thinking, talking, and doing, is not enough. And, ensuring that curriculum represents a balance of content, concepts, and skills, so that students can apply and makes sense of the content knowledge that they acquire is not enough.

It’s common sense: We must also ensure that the tasks with which students are engaged are rigorous. Understanding what rigor is and isn’t, and providing rigorous learning experiences for all students, will deepen learning, help make learning relevant, and better prepare students for college, skilled careers, and life.

We could not do our work as educators without curricular resources, and textbooks have been our most common resource. Unfortunately, the majority of tasks within too many textbooks are low-level, rote, and one-step. Even when textbooks promise to have more rigorous tasks (often at the end of the lesson), they are, in fact, simplistic problems is disguise or they are not assigned.

As Marcia Tate notes, worksheets don’t grow dendrites (Tate, 2016). While the detrimental effects of an over-reliance on worksheets is certainly related to what students are asked to do with them, too many worksheets require students to fill in blanks and solve procedural problems.

And far too often, we believe that we are increasing rigor by assigning more problems, or longer readings, or longer writing assignments, or problems with bigger numbers. We believe that we are increasing rigor by requiring more.

In the previous chapter, I noted educators have focused on content over skills by backwards planning from earlier generations of high-stakes assessments, which favored lower levels of understanding. The same situation occurs in respect to the quality of tasks. While the quality of high-stakes assessments has shifted, too many educator-created or textbook-provided assessments continue to focus on simplistic tasks. When teachers backwards plan from assessments like these, tasks too often lack rigor.

Lastly, it takes more time to facilitate the completion of rigorous tasks and the completion of rigorous tasks will undoubtedly involve productive struggle and healthy frustration. As long as mindsets remain fixed and learning is equated with points, percentages, and grades, there will be a reluctance from students, educators, and parents to engage in more rigorous learning.

We must increase the quality of the task with which we ask students to engage. There are several common sense ways of doing this.

On the topic of rigor, boy, do we have a wealth of best practice and guidance upon which to draw.

To start, the seven principles which comprise the instructional core, described in Chapter 1 of Instructional Rounds in Education by Elizabeth City, Richard Elmore, Sarah Fiarman, and Lee Teitel (2009) are amongst the most important, and common sense, sets of ideals that ought­ to be guiding our work. Principle four is, “The task predicts performance”:

What determines what students know and are able to do is not what the curriculum says they are supposed to do, or even what the teacher thinks he or she is asking students to do. What predicts performance is what students are actually doing. Memorization tasks produce fluency in memorization and recall, not necessarily understanding. Memorizing the elements of the periodic table is not the same as understanding the properties of the elements. The single biggest observational discipline we have to teach people in our networks is to look on top of the students’ desks rather than at the teacher in front of the room. The only way to find out what students are actually doing is to observe what they are doing – not, unfortunately, to ask teachers what students have done after the fact or to look at the results of student work after they have engaged in the task” (p. 30).

If we want student learning to improve, then the nature of the tasks that we assign to students must improve.

Barbara Blackburn, author of Rigor in Your Classroom (2014), defines both what rigor isn’t…

  • Lots of homework
  • Additional items to solve
  • Only for some
  • Possible if scaffolds and supports are provided
  • Possible only with the right resources

…and what rigor is…

  • Transferring understanding to new contexts
  • Synthesizing multiple sources
  • Employing multiple complex steps
  • Approaching tasks from divergent perspectives

Rigorous, complex tasks are for all students and these tasks involve multiple contexts, sources, steps, and perspectives.

Sandra Kaplan and colleagues (1995) created icons of depth and complexity to represent rigor. The icons of depth are:

  • Using the language of the discipline
  • Discovering the big idea
  • Determining the essential details
  • Identifying rules, patterns, and trends
  • Proposing unanswered questions
  • Investigating ethics.

Complexity:

  • Describing change over time
  • Approaching solutions from multiple points of view
  • Making connections across the disciplines.

Tasks to which Kaplan’s icons are added ask students to go deeper and think more complexly; they make a task more rigorous.

Finally, Art Costa and Bena Kallick’s habits of mind (2000) can be infused into student experiences to increase rigor or will be present within tasks that are rigorous. Costa and Kaplan found that rigorous tasks require students to:

  • Persist and manage impulsivity
  • Communicate with clarity, accuracy, and precision
  • Gather data through all senses
  • Listen with empathy
  • Create, imagine, and innovate
  • Think flexibly and interpedently
  • Respond with wonderment and awe
  • Think about thinking
  • Take intellectual risks
  • Find humor
  • Question and pose problems
  • Apply past knowledge to new situations
  • Remain open to continuous learning

Like Kaplan, Costa and Kallick note that rigor is not asking students to do more work; rigor requires students to do more with the work.

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Leadership: Resisting Newton’s Third Law

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There’s no doubt – leadership is difficult and serving as a school principal or other school system leader can be extraordinarily challenging. The stakes are so high; the futures of human beings are in development, and numerous stakeholders, understandably, demand that leaders have the answers. And yet, having all the answers may be the entirely wrong approach for leaders. Engaged and active leadership –yes. Leaders who dictate and demand – not so much.

We have, I suspect, worked with and for leaders who fit into the following categories:

  • The Competent Manager: Duty schedules and Back-to-School Night are well-organized. A vision for progressive and innovative practices is not really evident.
  • The People Person: The leader is a great person with exceptional interpersonal skills. When the going gets tough or boldness is needed, however, decisive action is wanting.
  • The Do as I Say, Not as I Do Boss: The words are impressive, but the actions and follow through do not match the promises.
  • The Authoritarian: Invoking fear is not a leadership attribute.
  • The Transactional Leader: Changes are rampant and things are happening. After a year, though, everyone is exhausted and the sustainability of improvements is highly suspect.
  • The Incomplete Leader: The intentions and energies are good, but shortfalls in vision-setting, professional learning supports, resources, incentives, or the implementation plan slowly and tragically erode away the potential benefits of the initiative.
  • The Door is Closed Leader: We think there is a leader, but the door is always closed.

Having served as a site principal and district leader for well over a decade, I cannot and am not passing judgment. These jobs are terrifically difficult and, frankly, I was neither adequately trained nor supported to be a leader. Efforts to ensure that school administrators are instructional leaders are laudable, but how about support in the basics of leadership?

We know Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Wise leaders will resist the temptation to push back when, inevitably, there are questions regarding continues improvement efforts. Questioning isn’t resistance, it’s engagement.

The preponderance of research and literature on leadership portrays the leader not as a dictator, but as a coach; leaders don’t order their followers to complete tasks, but collaboratively develop a vision, listen and learn with and from stakeholders, and build the capacity of their teams to do the work. Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, in The One Minute Manager, write, “The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority” (Blanchard & Johnson, 1982). Jack Welch, in Winning, notes that, “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others” (Welch, 2005). And John Maxwell says, “Leadership is influence. Nothing more. Nothing less.” (Maxwell, 2007)

In John Kotter and Dan Cohen’s work, The Heart of Change (2002), they note that leaders effect positive, productive, and sustained improvements in their organizations through the people with whom they work. Leaders gather a guiding coalition, craft a clear and simple vision, empower people to overcome obstacles, and strive to maintain momentum until the change becomes the new normal. Leaders don’t push the change, they guide the change.

In Switch (2010), Chip and Dan Heath note that resistance to improvement efforts often comes from a lack of clarity; what is perceived to be laziness is often the result of stress because we’re moving faster than the speed of trust; that perceived problems with people are often problems with the plan. The lesson is: Work with your colleagues, not against them. The vision is what’s important. How we get will likely emerge through the change process itself.

Simon Sinek (2009) famously encourages us to “Start with why.” What we do and how we do it will emerge from the why. Starting with why requires that we collaboratively define the why, and the individuals within the organization should be involved in the process.

And of course, this thinking of leader as a coach who empowers teams isn’t new. W. Edwards Deming (2013), Peter Drucker (1990), Peter Senge (1990), and Jim Collins (2001) reached the same conclusions. Interestingly and not coincidentally, the principles of leader-as-coach merge smoothly with the principles of PLCs at Work, and PLCs at Work may be the most common sense practice of all, a notion that I explore in conclusion of this book. The work of Deming and Senge are precursors to the work of DuFour and Eaker. Leadership is most definitely a challenge and it represents a set of skills that can be learned and continuously improved. This profession deserves and demands that leaders possess the most refined qualities and skills.

Exhaustive analyses of leadership in exceptional schools notes that, “The most direct and impactful way principals can influence student learning is by building and main­taining a strong learning climate in their schools” (Allensworth, Farrington, Gordon, Johnson, Klein, McDaniel, & Nagaoka, 2018, p. 26). And shaping strong cultures requires that principals empower others to lead:

“Teachers and students need support to build their leadership capacity…By developing structures to build teacher leadership capacity, principals empower teachers to take ownership over moving learning goals forward…this includes involving teach­ers in school-wide decisions, purposefully distributing leadership responsibilities (as opposed to ad hoc task delegation) to teachers and other student support staff” (Allensworth, Farrington, Gordon, Johnson, Klein, McDaniel, & Nagaoka, 2018, p. 26).

But, others will be wary of assuming leadership responsibilities if mutual trust is missing; trust is foundational to collaborative leadership (Bryk, Schneider, & Kochanik, 2002).

Common Sense Re-Assessments

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Re-assessing is a logical, common sense practice, communicating to students, “We expect you to use the feedback to relearn and then show us what you know now.” This has raised the issue of fairness. Some teachers express the belief that it is not fair to other students – students who passed the test the first time – when we allow multiple opportunities for students to take a test. And some teachers feel that we are not teaching responsibility when we allow multiple opportunities.

We all have an important decision to make because of a firm commitment to all students learning at high levels and a firm commitment to only one chance to demonstrate that learning is entirely incompatible. We all recognize, as parents, caregivers, and/or teachers, that children rarely learn at the same rate and in the same manner. To terminate instruction at an arbitrary date and suggest that learning of that content is at an end, and the one-time opportunity to demonstrate mastery is upon us, defies common sense.

But what about teaching responsibility? It is our position that responsibility is better taught by demanding that students persevere until they succeed than by giving them only one chance to do so. What are we teaching students when we communicate that they don’t have to actually learn the content once they’ve failed that first test – that they are off the hook and need not keep trying?

Does it not teach responsibility when we demand that students keep up with the new concepts and receive additional support on the old concepts until they reach the level of understanding needed for them to be successful? We are teaching perseverance; we are insisting that they learn how to learn, and continuously strive to improve. The “real world” in which there are no second chances for which some teachers think they are preparing students is a myth.

Colleges and universities increasingly embed multiple layers of support for students – they want high retention rates and are committed to equity and access. Careers have always provided multiple opportunities to enter professions: multiple chances to pass the state teaching exam; multiple opportunities to pass the bar; multiple opportunities to revise the thesis or dissertation. It’s not easy, and it will take collaborative action to design a system that provides remediation and allows for additional chances to take assessments. However, we cannot continue to defend a stance that denies the reality of the ways and rates at which individuals learn. It is disingenuous, or worse, to craft mission statements that promise high levels of learning for all if we retain the fine print that expresses that there will be no second chances for the 5- to 18-year-olds we serve.

Our district has been inspired by the high school math teacher, Matthew Beyranevand. The author of the blog, “Math with Matthew,” he’s a Global Math Project Ambassador, the K-12 Mathematics Department Coordinator for the Chelmsford Public Schools, a member of Massachusetts STEM Advisory Council, and the author of “Teach Math Like This, Not Like That.” His blog, “Retaking Assessments: Many math teachers are late to the party!” described his sustainable and successful process that so many of my district’s teachers are using in slightly modified forms.

Matthew starts with a belief to which I wholeheartedly subscribe: All assessments can and should be formative; that is, the feedback we get from the evidence students provide should be used to inform future instruction…and to provide feedback to students. The concepts in the “next” unit almost always build upon the concepts in the “last” unit. By not committing to relearning and reassessment, we are pretty obviously setting up students and ourselves for failure. Matthew starts by assigning students a reflection ticket, which requires them to reflect upon why errors were made. Our teachers are using various forms of exam wrap and test correction processes that similarly achieve the goal: Students are required to identify the learning target with which they need support and begin to analyze why the target was missed. Matthew then requires students to seek and receive assistance. Each of our district schools have tutorial times within which this support can be received. We are also increasingly assigning Khan Academy (and related personalized, online tools) lessons with which students can engage in targeted relearning. Matthew also requires that students complete any and all missing work from the unit. Then, any student who scored 20% to 90% on the first attempt can re-assess. And importantly, the new grade is the new grade, no averaging. Teachers in our district are following very similar procedures. We are working out the kinks and striving for both success and sustainability. But, we are committed to finding a solution; we’re not going back.

On last common sense idea on feedback. By the end of a semester or school year, students have given us a lot of feedback. What if we systematically recorded this evidence and systematically forwarded this feedback to next semester’s or next year’s teachers? How much more prepared would we be to support all students to success through scaffolds and differentiated supports? How much earlier in the year could we provide intensive supports when the feedback from the prior year reveals significant needs? This is a low-cost, highly effective form of universal screening, and it can and should inform proactively prepared Tier 1 instruction and Tier 3 intervention. It’s common sense and it’s based on feedback that students give to us and, in this case, feedback that we give to our colleagues.

Assessments – big and small, simple and complex, formal and informal – are events during which students give us feedback. We are committed to more accurately and intentionally gathering that feedback and in turn give students feedback about where they are and what they need to do to grow. And, we’re giving them the time and support to make the growth and the opportunities to show how us that they’ve made the growth.

RTI is Common Sense in Action

Students in all classrooms – whether Kindergarten or high school, college prep or honors – have different readiness levels, learning styles, and interests. Students are different and require different approaches to ensure they all learn at high levels. It’spredictable. It’s common sense. 

Some students will need more time to learn at high levels; not all students will learn on our time tables. It’s predictable. It’scommon sense.

There are students in our schools whose needs in foundational skills – in the areas of literacy, numeracy, and behavior – will significantly impact their success in any grade level and any content area. It’s predictable. It’s common sense.

If we can predict these situations (and we can), then we can prevent the negative consequences that are likely to occur by actively anticipating student needs and proactively preparing supports, as a teacher, as a team, as a school, as a district.

Some may call this response to intervention, while others may call it multi-tiered systems of supports. I call it common sense in action.

In too many schools, the first opportunity for support come when a student has fallen so far behind and has experienced so much frustration that staff concludes that there must be something wrong with the student – that there must be a learning disability. Learning disabilities are very real and students with disabilities deserve the very best supports. Waiting for failure (or for a 1.5 standard deviation difference between ability and achievement) to identify needs and provides supports is not, however, a good answer.

On too many schools, “learning for some” may not be a phrase in the mission statement, but it is a reality. A close cousin to “learning for some” is the tyranny of low expectations, as in, “I’m not sure that all students can learn at high levels, but I’ll conceded that all students can learn something.” In either case, students and society demand that we reject the fallacy that some students will and some students won’t or can’t learn.

“The normal curve is not sacred. It describes the outcome of a random process. Since education is a purposeful activity in which we seek to have students learn what we teach, the achievement distribution should be very different from the normal curve if our instruction is effective. In fact, our educational efforts may be said to be unsuccessful to the extent that student achievement is normally distributed (Bloom, 1971, p. 49).”

We have not been prepared for the needs that we know exist. We are either heroically failing to prepare what we can predict or we just don’t believe in the mission statement that graces school marquees and websites.

We too often solve the problem of student differences by assigning students with labels, often accompanied by specific tracks. Ability grouping does not work (Hattie, 2009), once and for all for any student, and this includes gifted students.

Lastly, grade retention. There simply aren’t many scenarios that could logically lead to retaining a student in a grade. If a significant need in identified, then we must immediately provide an intensive a targeted support, and if the student does not respond, we must continuously adjust the support until the student does respond. If the student still is not responding, which should not be common (see Allington, 2011), then the team ought to request permission to conduct a formal evaluation to determine special education eligibility, upon receiving parental permission, so that even more intensive, targeted, and individualized supports can be provided. I do not see retention becoming an option, in most cases.

I encourage all of us to embrace a fierce, unwavering belief that all student will learn at high levels – we just need time and the right supports. Labels, tracking, repeating courses, and repeating grades don’t really require more work from us; they place the burden (and the blame) on students.

Skills and Content

Content, and the acquisition of content knowledge, is not enough. The skills, habits, attributes, and dispositions that students employ when interacting with content knowledge are critically important; they always have been. Now, more than ever, however, there is a renewed recognition and renewed requirements that reasoning skills receive at least as much attention in our learning experiences as does the acquisition of content knowledge. 

It’s common sense: If we want students to remember and retain; to apply and make connections; to find relevance and be engaged; then our learning experiences must reflect the common sense notion that skill are as, or more, important then content.

Teachers have been teaching what they’ve been asked to teach; the curriculum commonly taught, and that we expect students to learn, in classrooms today – for better or worse – reflects the standards in place up until 2010. We have been expected to raise test scores and the high-stakes tests, from which many schools understandably backwards planned measured low-level knowledge, Benjamin Bloom’s recall level knowledge, NormanWebb’s Depth of Knowledge level 1. The formula, procedure, the algorithm, and rule were the end goal. The result – memorization and basic levels of content acquisition were favored – in our curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

The irony of this approach to raising test scores is that it most decidedly did not work for us. In fact, it was when we embedded opportunities for students to apply skills that student learning exploded and, yes, test scores increased (Buffum, Mattos & Weber, 2009). The newer generation of high stakes tests does require students to have learned and to apply skills.

But it wasn’t simply high-stakes tests (and the legacy of the these prior generation of tests remains); rigid pacing guides and curriculum maps also discouraged depth, using content knowledge, and applying skills. How? These guides and maps were (are) typically tied to textbooks and low-level content acquisition dominates lessons within textbooks. In addition, maps and guides too often were (are) packed with a new lesson every day. Applying skills to content takes more time than acquiring content knowledge. That’s simply common sense. Too many curriculum maps and pacing guide just do not allow the time for teachers to provide opportunities to justify, explain, model, persevere, and connect.

There is at least more reason that activities that favor memorization and content acquisition dominate in too many classrooms – modeling, teaching, and providing opportunities for students to practice applying skills is challenging. Professional learning sessions for educators that focus on students applying skills to content is a significant need. And, teams should be encouraged to focus on skills within their PLC work. 

I do not mean to suggest that the acquisition of content knowledge is unnecessary in the post-internet age. I’m only suggesting that modeling, teaching, and providing students with opportunities to use skills is an essential element of classroom instruction.

The good news is that the recent expert guidance and policy documents agree. There is now really no reason for us to continue to neglect equipping students with the skills need to succeed in life.

Feedback is a Two-Way Street

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I believe that if most of us were honest when asked why we assess we’d respond, “to give points and to assign a grade.” This is the ‘OF’ within the expression assessment OF learning. We must continue to transform our assessment practices toward assessment FOR learning and even to assessment AS learning.

David Ausbel (1968) wrote one of the most common sense of all truths in the epigraph of the seminal Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View over half a century ago:

If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly (p. 4).

We cannot do this common sense work without knowing where students are. We cannot do this common sense work without intentionally and frequently embedding opportunities for students to give us feedback.

When we gather evidence, students are giving us feedback about where they are and what they need to keep going. We can, in turn, give students feedback on what they’re doing well and where there is still room for growth, and we can begin to partner together in the next steps toward continuous improvement.

It’s common sense –assessment provides the opportunity to get and give feedback – feedback is a two-way street.

Giving “feedback” through points and percentages does not only threaten mindsets, it is also inaccurate. Consider a “constructed response” test made up of 10 items each worth 3 points. If a student earns 2 out of 3 on each item, meaning they had the right idea and even the correct process but did not arrive at the one correct answer, they will earn 20 out of 30 points, or 67%, or a ‘D.’ Are these points, percentages, and letter grades representative of what the student knows. More importantly, do these points, percentages, and letter grades provide students the feedback they need to keep learning (assuming that we give them the opportunity to keep learning). Does 2 out of 3 or 20 out of 30 give us the feedback we need from a student to know what is known and not-yet-known? Do these portions of points guide us in how to help the student improve?

We are surprised when a student stops trying or becomes frustrated within a grading period when they earn an early ‘F’ on a test – let’s say a 40%. And yet, if they earn an 80% on the three other tests within the semester, their final grade will be a low C, assuming they earn 100% of every other non-test point. Is that an accurate representation of their understanding? Should we be surprised if the hope of C- doesn’t inspire them to persevere? Do we provide students with feedback on why they earned that first grade and allow them the opportunity (or even require them) to learn what that they didn’t learn and give them the chance (or, again, require them) to show us what they now know?

If the content, skills, and concepts were important enough to teach and assess, shouldn’t they be important enough for us to allow/require multiple opportunities to learn them?

We cannot simply state that we taught it and they didn’t learn it. We lament that students do not have growth mindsets, viewing their learning as fixed and accusing them of neglecting to sufficiently persevere, and yet we do not give them the opportunities to act on the idea of, “I haven’t learned yet, but I may if I continue to put worth effort.” We do not allow them to practice a growth mindset.

We lament that students are not engaged in their learning and yet we do not provide them the feedback they need to know where they currently are and where they need to go. We hand back assignments, quizzes, tests, and projects with points, percentages, and pen marks and expect them to take responsibility for learning and for determining what they need to do.

Two of the three big ideas of PLCs at Work are a Focus on Learning and a Focus on Results. To meet the spirit of these two ideas, we must more frequently gather feedback on where students are. Determining what students know at the end of the unit (summative) assessments is simply too late. A focus on learning means we know how we are doing in helping students learn, and how students are doing learning, on a frequent, at least daily basis. And, our focus on results cannot be left the results on end of unit assessments. Yes, we can gain great insights from these common assessments (we can learn as professionals within a community of colleagues), but we must gather more frequent and accurate feedback from students on what they know and give more feedback to students on where they are.

At the very least, let’s accept that assessment and grading are not the same things. And let’s commit to assessment – to evidence gathering – as a way of getting and giving feedback. That’s the common sense need and opportunity of assessment.

The Most Common Sense Practice of All – PLCs at Work

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In my opinion, no educator has had a more transformative impact on education than Dr. Richard DuFour since Benjamin Bloom. In the 1950s and 1960s, Benjamin Bloom developed his taxonomy of learning and the foundational practices of response to intervention. Bloom’s contributions were transformative, reshaping what rigor should look like in classrooms and demonstrating that learning for all was possible when schools developed and implemented systems of supports to meet the anticipatable needs of all students.

We are blessed to have incredible experts, researchers, and educators serving in and contributing to our profession; and yet, in my opinion, the contributions of Dr. DuFour truly transformed the way schools operate and the way teachers work. Whereas other educators in the past half-century have greatly contributed to the improved quality of the work we do, PLCs at Work have redefined the nature of the work itself.

Think about it. We’ve gone from loosely connected silos of independent contractors to PLCs – the principles of team-based collaboration and an outcome-driven ethos– being the most widely known and employed sets of behaviors that guide educators work.

Education is the most important profession in the world. Individuals from no other profession will impact a greater percentage of people within a society than educators. You may offer up medical professionals as significantly impactful, and thank goodness for our health care system; but educators see the most impressionable and vulnerable members of our society 180 days a year for at least 19 years.

The job of educating children is critically important, literally a matter of life and death – the more educated an individual, the longer their life span and the greater their quality of life. And, the job of educating children with a myriad of needs is incredible difficult; we simply cannot do it alone.

When I began teaching, the notion that my classroom was distinct from other classrooms was accepted as fact. While we may have attended professional development together and use the same textbook, the privilege of the autonomy of the teacher in the classroom was unquestioned.

When I became a principal, the teachers within each grade level emphasized different priorities, taught in various sequences, and assessed in different ways, even expecting different levels of mastery. Collaboration and collective responsibility just wasn’t possible because we did things so differently. I encountered the same situations within the schools I served when I moved to the district office in a large urban school district in another state.

I still hear sentiments such as, “I can’t collaborate because my teaching style is different than yours,” or “I can’t collaborate because I have more (or fewer) gifted (or at-risk) students in my class,” or “I can’t collaborate because I’m farther ahead (or behind) than you.” We can do better; students deserve it.

In the very recent past, and to this day in some school systems, the notion that all students can learn at high levels is still doubted or qualified; the bell curve is still accepted as a normal and expected outcome. And, even if we wanted to collaborate, the obstacles of insufficient amounts of time, insufficient qualities of guidance, and insufficient leadership and accountability allow for PLCs at Work to be a rare occurrence. We can do better; students deserve it.

And while teacher meetings are more frequent, collaboration lite is not enough. Planning together and getting along isn’t enough. Communicating with one another about our work and coordinating efforts isn’t enough. PLC’ing isn’t limited to meeting together regularly. When fully embraced, PLCs at Work shape every aspect of a school and district’s work.

 

Education isn’t broken, and…

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Education isn’t broken. Dr. Richard Consider DuFour’s made this case magnificently In Praise of American Educators (2015). Dr. DuFour reports that:

  • High school graduation rates are at an all-time high.
  • More students are taking AP courses and a greater rate of students are passing AP tests.
  • Student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) assessments have steadily improved the past several decades.
  • While 10% of parents report that public schools are failing and 18% give public schools grades of A or B, only 1% of parents report that their oldest child’s school is failing and 75% give this local school a grade or A or B, the best grades for local schools in the poll’s history.
  • Nearly 90% of students’ agree that student-teacher relations are positive, a percentage well above the average of industrialized nations within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
  • Speaking of OECD, when controlling on student poverty, students from the United States would rank first in the world on the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA); when including students living in poverty (and the US has the highest percentage of students living in poverty among industrialized nations), the US scores in the middle of the pack, or just below. (I do not mean suggest our services and supports for students living in poverty have been adequate; they most definitely haven’t and we must do better as educators serving all students and as a society eliminating poverty).

These successes have occurred as the number and percent of students living in poverty and speaking a language other than English at home have grown at significant rates.

While a crisis does not exist, we can and must improve. It’s not simply the characteristics of the students we serve that are changing; the world for which we are preparing students is changing as well. Consider these facts:

  • The percentage of jobs that requires postsecondary education has increased by 2.3 times in the past 50 years, and a college degree is increasingly necessary for access to middle class.
  • Workers who do not graduate from high school, or who graduate unready for college or a skilled career, will be limited to service, sales, and office support jobs – jobs that pay low salaries and that are in decline (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2010; 2013).

The futures for which we are preparing students has changed and continue to change and education is increasingly represents the differentiator (Bendor, Bordoff, & Furman, 2007)

  • Classes are increasingly fixed: Children born into the lower class are ten times more likely to live in the lower class as adults than are children born into the upper class
  • Children born into the upper class are 14 times more likely to earn a postsecondary degree than children born into the lower class (Greenstone, Looney, Patashnik, & Yu, 2013; Edsall, 2012).

In a rapidly changing, increasingly global world, we must commit to continuous improvement and to a reflection upon on or current practices. The status quo is simply not an option, even in the (currently) highest performing schools.

Screening for Students in Need of Behavioral Supports

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Behavioral skills help ensure students succeed in school, college, career, and life. Some students will need intensive supports to meet significant needs. To identify students—based on evidence, data, and observations—who are likely to require immediate and relatively intensive supports from the very beginning of the year to achieve success, we must be proactive. We can predict that some students will have behavioral skill needs—needs that we can and should determine early within school years and school careers. We can prevent frustrations and failures by screening for these needs and proactively preparing positive supports.

Universal screening is a popular RTI term. What does it mean? First of all, we do not screen to label or confirm the reasons that a student is succeeding or having difficulties. We screen so that we actively anticipate students in need and proactively prepare positive supports. This is a foundational principle of RTI.

Screening filters those students who are at risk of failure unless they receive immediate, intensive supports. Remember, if it’s predictable, it’s preventable. One efficient and practical way in which to screen students is to reflect on those students for whom mastery of the prioritized and defined behavioral skills prove to be quite difficult. We can predict who these students are—they scored in the lowest performance band on the state (or province) test; they scored in the sixth percentile on a norm-referenced test; they were suspended for twelve days last year. At the end of each academic year, teachers should screen all students in this manner to identify any individuals who, despite a strong core instructional program (Tier 1), are still in danger of failure. To ensure that students do not fall further and further behind, students must have access to immediate help (Buffum et al., 2009, 2010, 2012; Hierck, Coleman, & Weber, 2011). Those determined to be at risk for experiencing significant difficulties receive targeted, evidence-based interventions as soon as is practical.

I will now discuss two tools for screening students: the combined student risk screening scale and student internalizing behavior screening scale, and transition guides.

Student Risk Screening Scale and Student Internalizing Behavior Screening Scale

Two tools that schools may use when screening all students in the area of behavioral skills are the student risk screening scale (SRSS; Drummond, 1994) and the student internalizing behavior screening scale (SIBSS; Cook, Rasetshwane, Truelson, Grant, Dart, Collins, & Sprague, 2011). The SRSS and SIBSS are brief, no-cost, research-based screeners that educators can use to identify students with externalizing and internalizing behavioral challenges (For research on the use and efficacy of these screeners, please see: Lane, Bruhn, Eisner, & Kalberg, 2010; Lane, Kalberg, Lambert, Crnobori, & Bruhn, 2010; Lane, Kalberg, Parks, & Carter, 2008; Lane, Little, Casey, Lambert, Wehby, Weisenbach, & Phillips, 2009; Lane, Oakes, Ennis, Cox, Schatschneider, & Lambert, 2011; Lane, Parks, Kalberg, & Carter, 2007; Menzies & Lane, 2012; Oakes, Wilder, Lane, Powers, Yokoyama, O’Hare, & Jenkins, 2010).

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Staff who know students well can complete this screener at the conclusion of a school year. In middle or high schools, where teachers work with well over 100 students in a day, the school can agree that homeroom or advisory period teachers complete the screener, sharing results with colleagues to check for differences in opinion. In the absence of these types of periods, the school can dedicate one period within the day for teachers to complete the screener. Educators can use data from this screener to provide supports to students on the very beginning of the next school year before another year of difficulties occurs. The screener requires little time to complete, and students with behavioral needs above a given threshold will very likely require immediate, positive, and structured behavioral supports at the start of the following year to be successful. The research behind these screeners specifies a “score” above which a student is deemed to be at-risk for difficulties with externalizing or internalizing behaviors (a score of 9 or above corresponds with high-risk). In my experience, in is not uncommon for there to be more students identified as “high-risk” than is practically possible to support. In this case, the school may decide to raise the threshold above which students are provided with proactive and positive supports, with other students below this threshold on a watch-list. The term positive is important. We are not screening to prejudge or to pre-punish but to prepare positive supports and environments in which we can preclude the difficulties that the screener predicts are possible.

Some students who experience difficulty accessing content and benefitting from instruction within the core Tier 1 environment may have health, nutrition, sleep, exercise, and sensory needs that are not being met. These skills represent coping strategies for stressors that, when lacking, will impede student success. We as teachers are unable to provide all of these basic needs, and, indeed, educators have not historically been trained or expected to know about cognitive or precognitive self-regulation. Consequently, and understandably, we may not even be used to recognizing deficits in these most basic and critical of foundations. Proactively screening for students with these needs is a first step in organizing and providing supports.

Importantly, screeners are not intended to diagnose or determine the causes of student needs or suggest the types of supports that are required to meet student needs; diagnosing student needs is a separate step and set of processes. The SRSS and SIBSS are holistic screeners; the accumulation of points across the seven indicators within each screener indicate risk but an elevated score on a single indicator does not necessarily equate to a diagnosis.

Transition Guides

As an alternative to the SRSS and SIBSS, teams of educators can systematically, consistently, and proactively reflect on student successes and challenges. For example, within K-8 schools in Chicago, Illinois in which I worked, teacher teams collaboratively completed transition guides at the conclusion of the school year. They shared information from this chart with the next grade level’s team of teachers so that it could proactively prepare positive supports that would ensure that students got off to a great start to the year. In addition, they share this information with leadership and student study teams so that those teams could proactively prepare more intensive support plans for students with the greatest need in a timely manner, plans that would be initiated at the very beginning of the next school year. The school principal and leadership team provides the time for this important work and facilitates the process so that current teachers are empowered to inform their colleagues and so that next year’s teachers are empowered to proactively and positively prepare.Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 10.09.29 AM

 

When screening identifies a student to likely be in need of specialized supports so that he or she can meet the clearly defined behavioral expectations, there are two next steps.

  1. Teacher teams collaboratively prepare differentiated supports, strategies, and scaffolds so that all students can successfully learn within core, Tier 1 environments.
  2. RTI teams collaboratively determine the why behind students’ difficulties with behavioral skills and design appropriate plans (perhaps Tier 2 or Tier 3 supports) that will meet their needs and ensure their success.

 

Adapting Curricula to Improve Mindsets

 

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Mindsets, those internalized student beliefs that so significantly impact other behavioral skills and academic performance, can and must be shaped by us – by how we interact with students, by our pedagogies and strategies, by how we interact with students, and by the curriculum that we design. When students believe that they can learn, they tend to learn more and better than when they don’t (Cheema & Kitsantas, 2014; Zimmerman, Bandura, & Martinez-Pons, 1992). The presence of continual growth opportunities enhances a belief in the impact of one’s effort on learning. However, our traditional instruction, assessment, and grading policies are entirely inconsistent with a growth mindset.

If we are to encourage a growth mindset in our students, we must move beyond instruction and assessment that disallows students to complete missing work and make-up tests. Instead, our instruction methods should be adapted to require that all students improve on their first efforts. English teachers have been providing opportunities for students to improve their writing for years; let’s ensure that more of the tasks and tests that we assign to students nurture a climate of continuous learning and, once and for all, eliminate climates of fixed mindset habits for all students—those for whom achievement has traditionally been more challenging as well as those for whom it’s come easy (Dweck, 2006; Dweck, Walton, & Cohen, 2014).

Additionally, the value of school from a student’s perspective will improve when he or she sees relevance and purpose in the tasks that the teacher assigns. This will be possible when we substitute depth of learning for breadth of covering as many topics as possible. Racing through the curriculum compromises student exploration of rich problems, including problems of their choosing. Teach less, learn more, and improve student engagement in their learning.

A student’s belief in his or her ability to be successful improves when frequent supports are in place to systemically meet student needs. Benjamin Bloom (1968, 1974, 1984) proved the success of exactly these supports beginning in the 1960s. Bloom called this mastery learning; in the 21st century, we call it Tier 2 of RTI. Using evidence from formative assessments, we must build in time to provide interventions and enrichments to deepen student mastery of essential concepts and skills. We must meet students where they are to deliver on the promise of high levels of learning for all.

Mindsets matter immensely. Here’s our challenge: How do we actively and explicitly create conditions within which positive mindsets will thrive?