Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Empowering Schools

Recently, a retired, respected principal sent out a survey to sitting principals in our Department.  Results were shared recently in a Honolulu Star-Advertiser article titled, "Principals feel they're hamstrung, survey finds".  A follow-up op-ed piece as well as a "Name in the News" profile on retired principal John Sosa all pointed to the same message:  sitting principals are concerned with the present state of the Department, but they are afraid to speak up for fear of retribution.  In response to the question, "What should individual principals do?" Mr. Sosa replied, "I think they have to stand up and be counted.  The system can be changed, but it's going to take the principals coming forth, the active sitting principals."

It has been ten years since Act 51 was passed by the 2004 Legislature, and the expectation was that principals and school communities would be empowered to make decisions to address the unique needs of their school.  A weighted student formula, modeled after the one implemented in the Edmonton School district, allocated funds based on student need.  Principals and schools would be empowered, but they would also be accountable for student achievement.  In the aftermath of Act 51, school communities were tasked with making decisions about how to spend the money they were allocated to ensure student success.

Today, ten years after the Reinventing Education Act of 2004, whose purpose was to decentralize the DOE and give decision-making power to the schools - in essence, turning the Department upside-down - the balance has shifted power back to the top.Today, schools are even being told how to spend their weighted student formula funds.  We have had to create positions to implement the Department's priority strategies, and now, we are being mandated to purchase a specific program for English Language Arts and Mathematics.  A school with 300 students could pay upwards of $160,000 on these two programs with additional costs incurred each year for professional development, consummable workbooks, or renewal of licenses.. As an educator who believes that teachers should be empowered to use a multitude of resources to address the needs of their students, this has been a difficult mandate to swallow.

To make matters even more challenging, as a result of the negotiated contract to tie teacher performance to student learning, the Department hastily instituted an Educator Effectiveness System this year which is labor and time-intensive. The different components provides data to rate ALL teachers using the SAME evaluation tool.  Why are we evaluating beginning teachers using the same criteria and rubric as experienced, distinguished teachers?  Why aren't teachers setting their own goals for improvement?  Shouldn't we be encouraging teachers to be innovative and to grow professionally in an area they may be interested in or passionate about? Don't we want teachers to be life-long learners?  Just as standardized testing doesn't tell the true story of a student and how much he/she knows, EES ratings do not tell the true value of a teacher.

This school year has been confusing for educators at our school.  Teachers dutifully completed the required tasks, but we know that all the EES requirements boiled down to compliance. At the end of the day, we could say we completed everything and checked off every box in pde3 for every teacher, but all of these tasks did NOT necessarily lead to increased student achievement.

We made the decision not to purchase the mandated English Language Arts curriculum.  I have no doubt that the year would have been even more difficult for our teachers if we had forced a new program on them.

Instead, our teachers had the opportunity to try new ideas, and they sought opportunities to learn new instructional strategies, often through the use of new technologies.  Students had choices on what to read and write when teachers implemented The Daily Five.  The entire school was excited to share their creative Cardboard Challenge projects which integrated STEM concepts.  Classrooms participated in the Global Read Aloud, Google Hangouts, Mystery Classrooms, and virtual field trips with schools around the globe.. Students created websites, collaborated on Google presentations, learned to code during The Hour of Code, produced informative videos to share important messages, and created communities in Minecraft. They grew their own vegetables, marketed their own sunflower seeds, learned about our state's history and culture by tending their Hawaiian garden, integrated math concepts in art projects, and built their own simple machines.  All of these projects would not have been possible without innovative classroom teachers who had "permission" to try something new.

This is what education should be:  Empowering principals to empower teachers to empower students. Education is about leadership to innovate and to create. Our school will probably never lead the state in standardized test scores, but we believe our students will be better prepared for life if we empower our teachers and our students to be innovative and to take responsibility for their own learning.

Teaching and learning should be exciting, and schools need to be empowered to address the unique needs of their community rather than being mandated to implement one-size-fits-all curriculum.  That was the intent of Act 51.


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Owning Our Data

As our school year comes to a close in a few days, it is time to reflect on a process which has driven us this past year - Data Team meetings.  This is one of our Department's 6 Priority Strategies, and we complied, scheduling meetings so teachers could work together to discuss and improve instructional practices as well as student performance.  This data would also be used for one of the two Student Learning Objectives which teachers had to complete as part of their Educator Effectiveness System of evaluation which focused on student growth and learning. We also complied with another Priority Strategy by convening quarterly Academic Review Team meetings to review our data. At each meeting, we shared the data we had, and we were clearly flat-lining, but we could not identify the cause.  Analyzing data did not necessarily improve student learning in all classrooms.  So what went wrong?

During our second round of teacher observations, I realized that the evidences pointed to marked improvement in four of the five components of the Danielson Framework that we are using as part of the teacher evaluation system.  Lessons were more collaborative and engaging, included critical thinking skills and an expectation that students would have opportunities to discuss with each other. The one area that is not improving however, is assessment, and that is where we need to focus our efforts next year.

Examples of formative assessments we are seeing in classrooms are exit tickets with a similar problem for students to solve that is similar to the one they did in class; whiteboards where students hold up their response to a question with the teacher spot-checking; teacher questions to the whole group with the same students often raising their hand to respond; or the assignment itself to check for understanding to reteach later.  We also saw students sharing responses with each other and lots of group work where students collaborated on an assignment.  Lots of great teaching and learning are happening in our classrooms, but our data did not reflect this. The universal screening tool for Response to Intervention (another Department Priority Strategy) indicated that despite progress monitoring and intervention support, too many students were not moving towards proficiency.  The referral rate for special education evaluations remained high.  And despite my reluctance to rate teaching and learning based on high-stakes testing, the fact is that many of our students are not proficient on grade level standards if the Hawaii State Bridge Assessment is any indication.

Rather than sharing data at our last ART meeting, we had an honest discussion about why our students are not showing the kinds of gains we would expect to see if our lessons are addressing what they need to know and care about.  We came to some agreement about some of the things we need to change next year.  Here is a list of what we discussed and will be implementing:

  • Too much time was spent this year on summative assessments (HSA Bridge, KidBiz, Measuring Up Live!, AimsWeb, SBAC pilot, grade level content assessments, etc.). Next year, we made the decision not to test kindergarteners using AimsWeb because K teachers already have an assessment that they have used successfully to gauge student progress on readiness skills. However, universal screening using AimsWeb will be administered to all grades 1-5 students at the beginning and end of the year.  Students who are at "Below" or "Well Below" on the specific AimsWeb screenings will be progress monitored and assessed during the middle of the year.  This will help us make decisions for those students who need the most support or those who are demonstrating little or no progress.  
  • Every classroom teacher will implement an RTI support system in his/her classroom, a time when students will receive differentiated instruction which is tailored to his/her needs.  This should not be difficult because many of our teachers already have a system in place where students rotate through learning activities and the teacher works with students in small homogeneous groups to address specific skills or strengths. The RTI literacy coach and special education teacher can assist with these small groups and work collaboratively to address the needs of individual students at this time. 
  • Teachers need to own their data and students need to set their own goals.  Parents should be informed about the goals for their children so they can help at home and encourage continued growth.  At our school, we have two conference weeks - one in the fall and one in the spring.  In the past, our spring conference has been student-led, but perhaps it is time to involve students in their fall conference as well so the school can truly partner with the home to ensure success for every student.
  • Recent research shows that ". . . reflecting after learning something new makes it stick in your brain." In an article titled, "Study:  You Really Can 'Work Smarter, Not Harder'," participants who had the opportunity to reflect on their strategies or on what they had learned, performed about 20% better on a final assessment, and the effects were long-lasting, not short-term.  Many of our teachers use learning logs, journals, or interactive notebooks with their students.  Adding in a reflection piece with feedback could have a positive impact on student learning and provide the teacher with invaluable information about what students may still be struggling with or may not fully understand.  Reflection is a way for students to take ownership for their own learning. 
Our job is to provide the supports from instructional coaches, RTI literacy coaches, mentor teachers, and colleagues so teachers can view data as "their friend" and not just something they do because they are required to do so.  It is my hope that implementing these strategies school-wide with fidelity will lead to more productive Data Team meetings where teachers are sharing successes, asking tough questions, and being true critical friends so that by the end of the year, all students are ready for the rigors of the next grade level.