Category Archives: School Improvement

Informal classroom observations – not just for principals anymore

classroom observationOver the past 10 years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of principals and central office administrators about their successes and challenges with conducting informal classroom walkthroughs—observations that are done for professional development coaching and monitoring rather than for formal evaluation purposes. While many of these school and district leaders say that there are benefits to doing these walkthroughs—such as improving PD effectiveness, increasing collaborative staff dialogue, and building a purposeful school community—they often struggle to find time to conduct the walkthroughs because of how much else is on their plate during busy school days.

A solution I’ve seen many successful principals employ over the last few years is to bring other observers into the fold, engaging instructional coaches, peer coaches, and other teacher leaders in the process. What these principals found is that sharing walkthrough responsibilities with these additional staff not only saved time, but it instilled higher levels of trust and transparency throughout their building and helped more of their instructional team members understand and rally around common goals and initiatives.

Benefits for coaches and teachers

Walkthroughs provide real-time feedback and an opportunity for staff to learn and grow by observing their peers’ classrooms and having structured peer coaching conversations. Staff become stronger leaders, improve their own practices, collaborate and share ideas and suggestions, and provide feedback to their peers, creating a collegial environment that supports professional growth and improvement. Protocols and tools that leverage the data can help staff deepen their professional dialogue using evidence, develop and achieve SMART goals, and self-reflect on their practices for professional growth.

Conduct video walkthroughs for coaching

If lack of face-to-face time impedes the ability to conduct walkthroughs, teachers can record a classroom lesson and send the video to designated staff members for time-stamped formative feedback, not just compliments and praise, on their instruction. This gives teachers an opportunity to receive feedback, but also to self-reflect on practice—crucial to their own instructional growth—by seeing the lesson objectively. Follow-up coaching conversations, in which the lesson is discussed, feedback is shared, and suggestions for more effective classroom delivery are provided (a glow and a grow), can help increase teaching efficacy.

Driving better PD planning, monitoring, and outcomes

Ultimately, the data gleaned from your informal walkthroughs will help your coaching and leadership teams better determine the professional development needs of your staff, gauge the value of PD sessions already delivered, and document outcomes needed for grant proposals and district reports. Perhaps even more importantly, the honest conversations your team has about the walkthrough findings can also introduce ideas for systemic changes within the school, creating a growth-oriented culture among staff members.

A supportive, visionary leader can build a strong team of instructional coaches and teachers who can help ALL teachers identify what they are doing well and areas where they need support.

6a010536aec25c970b01a3fd216cb0970bLisa Maxfield is a program manager at McREL who works with clients of McREL’s EmpowerED Suite, which includes the Power Walkthrough® informal walkthrough software, on effective protocols for supporting educators’ professional growth. Listening closely to clients’ needs and successes, she also works with the application’s developers on enhancements to the walkthrough platform’s templates, ease-of-use, and dashboard reporting functionality.

 


McREL’s EmpowerED Suite helps educators, from the classroom to the central office, maximize their potential to improve professional practices and make a difference in student achievement. The EmpowerED Suite, which contains five powerful applications—Power Walkthrough®, Coaching, Reflection, Evaluation, and Survey—collectively helps an entire school or district build a shared language and focus to deepen professional growth, expand skills, and improve instruction. Power Walkthrough can be used as an individual component or as part of the complete Suite. Learn more about McREL’s EmpowerED Suite.

Are great school leaders born or made?

leadershipWhen we think of great leaders, we often think of those who seem as if they were “born to lead.” But is leadership really a fixed trait, or is it an acquired skill? In the May issue of Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein explore the research on how school leaders become great leaders.

Recent studies support the idea that leaders’ performance does indeed change over time—though not always for the better. One study of 197 elementary schools found that significant changes in principals’ performance were linked to better school improvement capacity and higher student growth rates (Heck & Hallinger, 2010). However, a similar study of 39 elementary principals found that leaders changed how they spent their time over a three-year period—but that schools where principals focused more on managerial tasks had higher achievement, while those where principals focused more on instructional leadership had lower achievement.

Goodwin and Hein note that the results of the second study were correlational and not causal, and that perhaps low performance prompted the principals in those schools to focus on instructional leadership, rather than the other way around. How effective a leader is, it seems, depends largely on the situation. For example, Fiedler (1997) found that, in high-stress situations, experienced leaders were more effective, but in low-stress situations, those same leaders tended to rely on their experience and how they’ve always done things, which led to performance plateaus.

One final piece to consider, say the authors, is the role of coaching. Studies clearly show that principals who are coached by more experienced administrators become more reflective and proactive and perform better. In the end, Goodwin and Hein conclude, effective leadership—regardless of context—appears to require a balance of nature, nurture, and guidance.

Read the entire column.

Posted by McREL International.

Differences, not disabilities

learning differences

Students who learn differently from most have often been defined as having disabilities, which has a profound effect on their experiences in school, their relationships with others, and even their sense of identity. But a growing movement is seeking to shift the paradigm from learning disabilities to learning differences—recognizing that no two students learn exactly the same and that all students deserve an education based on their strengths, not their deficits.

In the April issue of Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein examine these differences through the lens of learning styles, which focus on the ways students gather, process, and evaluate information—and how that can inform curriculum, instruction, and assessments.

Learning styles have been around for decades, the authors explain, but little hard evidence proves their existence, let alone their impact on learning. However, the concept continues to influence educators. The Every Student Succeeds Act, for example, calls for states to apply the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)—a framework for developing flexible learning environments that accommodate individual learning differences—when planning assessments and instruction. Why?

Perhaps it’s that the research has yet to catch up with an idea that, at its core, makes common sense. Learning styles have been hard for researchers to pin down: More than 70 different frameworks exist, much of the data relies on unreliable self-reporting, and the styles themselves appear to be changeable (i.e., people can have multiple styles and switch among them). However, say Goodwin and Hein, a new generation of neuroscience studies are using brain scans and eye tracking to support different learning preferences.

The key takeaway for educators, the authors conclude, is to reflect on their approach to instruction planning. Do you plan based on how you prefer to learn, or on how your students prefer to learn? Do you consider the preferences of some of your students or all of them? Getting inside your students’ heads is, ultimately, what learning styles—and effective teaching—is all about.

Read the entire column.

Posted by McREL International.

What does it really take to personalize learning?

personalized learningEmma is an 8th grader who loves horses. For a school project on animal behavior, she learned all about their intelligence and complex social dynamics—and then, with her teacher’s guidance, designed an experiment to see whether horses were smart enough to learn how to read. More specifically, she showed horses one board painted with a circle and another board painted with a rectangle to try to teach them to choose the circle in order to get a treat.

This is personalized learning at its best: Students learn what they need to learn (how to design a science experiment) while getting to choose how to go about it based on their interests (horses) and curiosity (are they smart enough to read?). But, asks McREL’s Bryan Goodwin in his latest Research Matters column in Educational Leadership, how effective is this kind of learning? Does it work for everyone? What does it take to implement it well?

Goodwin points to some promising studies that show benefits, particularly for low-achieving students. A 2015 RAND Corp. study, for example, compared achievement levels of 11,000 low-income and minority students in personalized learning environments with that of similar peers nationwide and found positive effect sizes for both mathematics (0.27) and reading (0.19). Perhaps most impressive was the fact that students who started off below average on national assessments were scoring above average just three years later.

But, Goodwin says, there’s a flip side: Rigorous research is limited and, in some cases, studies showed no effects or even negative effects of personalized learning on achievement—possibly the result of uneven implementation. For personalized learning to succeed, Goodwin cautions, a number of shifts must occur:

  • Teachers need to re-imagine themselves less as information providers and more as learning coaches
  • Curriculum must be rewritten as competencies or pathways that students can master at their own pace
  • Schools must embrace a “fail forward” mentality, allowing students to try and fail and try again

Only then can personalized learning help all students learn not only what they need to learn but also what they most want to learn—like whether horses can read (which, it turns out, they can).

Read the entire column.

Supporting students’ growth mindset and effort

“What makes a student successful?” If you ask students in your classroom this question, how would they respond? Would they say that a student is successful because she is smart, or because the teacher likes him, or because she is lucky? Would students suggest that taking good notes, studying for tests, or doing homework can lead to success?

Often, students attribute success to things that they consider beyond their control, like luck or intelligence. But student effort is often overlooked or minimized as a factor in future success. The more immersed students are in a school and classroom culture where effort is a focus, the more the messages and examples of effort will resonate and bring about positive change for them.

How, then, can we establish an effort-focused classroom culture? First, when teaching students about the relationship between effort and achievement, be explicit. Share stories about people who worked hard to be successful and help students identify the specific actions that contributed to their success. Then, talk with students about what they want to succeed at; help them identify their steps toward success, providing explicit guidance about what it means to expend effort. Be clear about what is necessary for success in your classroom and help students practice those skills. Finally, ask students to keep track of their effort and achievement. Rubrics or graphs depicting effort and achievement can help students to see the correlation between the two.

It’s also just as important to remember that effort is not the only factor that influences student achievement. Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck. They need a repertoire of approaches – not just sheer effort – to learn and improve.  It’s VERY IMPORTANT to keep in mind that students need to be learning! If we’re praising students for working hard, especially when they’re not learning what they are supposed to learn, then something needs to change.

That’s the crux of the issue. When you help students make the connection between effort and achievement, they begin to see that intelligence is not a fixed attribute that some people have and some people don’t. They’ll also begin to recognize that expending effort with perseverance and resiliency will not only help them achieve their goals, but will also expand their intelligence through the processes of decision making and adaptation. Teachers who understand and demonstrate the connections between effort, a growth mindset, and achievement will help students unlock their own learning, leading to higher achievement and better success.

 

Bissonette_Terri_2015_Terri Bissonette, Ed.D., is a consultant at McREL International and a former classroom teacher and teacher leader specializing in effective instructional practices and instructional coaching. At McREL, Terri primarily works with State Departments of Education and schools to improve student learning and close achievement gaps for underserved minority student populations.

Research spotlights an invisible barrier to student success: Fate control

iStock_000012787465_SmallHalf a century ago, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University set out to determine if and how schools could counteract the effects of poverty on student success. Hopeful that the findings would provide evidence to support War on Poverty education policies, policy makers and even President Lyndon Johnson were shocked when the study found that the effect of non-school factors outweighed school characteristics, leading researcher James Coleman to conclude that schools provide “no opportunity at all” to even the playing field for impoverished and minority students.

However, as McREL’s Bryan Goodwin explains in the latest Research Matters column in Educational Leadership, many people overlooked one powerful finding that still has implications today: A single “student attitude factor” (or lack thereof) showed a stronger relationship to achievement than all of the school factors combined.

In the decades since, Goodwin adds, researchers have built on this finding, showing that academic success is largely based on how much control students think they have over their ability to succeed—or their “fate control.” Internals, or those who believe they can shape their futures by their actions, are more likely to succeed academically than externals, who see their circumstances as shaped by forces out of their control.

The good news for educators, Goodwin says, is that they can help externals develop new beliefs about themselves by providing small opportunities to set and achieve goals, which allow them to see the connection between effort and results—and doing so in a safe, secure, predictable learning environment.

You can read the entire column here.

Posted by McREL International.

Four fallacies that keep us from finishing what we start

School leadership in a meetingOne of the major pitfalls of systemic education improvement is this: Too many schools and districts begin a promising new initiative only to toss it aside before it has a chance to become part of the organizational culture and make a difference. Within this graveyard of discarded initiatives are thousands upon thousands of dollars spent on professional development, curriculum programs, innovative processes, and unfulfilled hopes for better student achievement.

In our never-ending quest to locate the next “shiny object” cure for our challenges, we sometimes overlook an important facet of school and student improvement that is fully within our control: the power to finish what we started.

Why do we so often fail to bring our many important initiatives to fruition? Part of the answer lies in addressing the fallacies that often form our belief system.

Fallacy #1: Believing that when people know what to do they will do it. There’s difference between knowing what to do, and knowing how to do it. Without a step-by-step plan, modeling, guidance, and good descriptive feedback, very few people will take what they have learned and be able to apply it with accuracy, intentionality, and precision in a sustained manner.

Fallacy #2: Believing that fear, facts, and force will overcome people’s resistance to carry an initiative to full implementation. People around the world have known for decades that smoking, excessive drinking, poor diet, and a sedentary life greatly reduces one’s longevity. Yet only one person in 10 makes the lifestyle changes necessary for living longer and maintaining a high level of health. In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink offers a more promising approach: Elaborate on the purpose of implementing the initiative, provide defined autonomy during the process, and assist those implementing until they reach mastery.

Fallacy #3: Believing that doing more will make us better and better. Unfortunately, the opposite has proven to be true. When schools and districts add more work within the school day, the result is that levels of productivity, trust, enthusiasm, and engagement decline. A school-based improvement plan that is built on an overwhelming list of initiatives and their associated activities—and allows little time to implement any one item—is ripe for failure. Taking time to create and maintain a single focus unburdens staff and opens doors for making the initiative “stick” for longer than one academic year.

Fallacy #4: Believing that paying attention to the “what” will bring rapid results without harming the culture. When attention strays from nurturing the culture, everyone suffers. Culture can be described as the personality of an organization, providing the “secret sauce” that keeps an organization healthy and robust. The research base from McREL’s Balanced Leadership® program emphasizes four important leadership responsibilities that require attention when a change, such as implementing an initiative, occurs: communication, input, order, and culture.

Once we accept that these beliefs are false, what else can we do differently to make sure our initiatives are implemented well, and for a sustained period? Here are four important tips:

4 TIPS FOR IMPROVEMENT INITIATIVES-01Over-communicate. During the implementation process, stakeholders need to receive ongoing messages in person, through e-mails, at meetings, and by other formal and informal means.

Ask for input. Allow staff at the school or district level to share their good thinking. Take time to establish a clear message that delineates input from decision-making. Be clear about which person or persons will make the final decision.

Establish order. Providing and maintaining a predictable environment adds stability to the organization, allowing for risk-taking within a safe zone.

Create and preserve a positive culture. Pay close attention to the people and needs within the organization.

Implementation is not an event, but instead is a systems improvement process requiring a well-developed plan that offers assistance along the way, not just a set of marching orders.

Any initiative worth the investment of time and money deserves to cross the finish line.

Bj StoneConsulting director Dr. Bj Stone is a co-author of the second editions of Classroom Instruction that Works (2012) and A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works (2012). A former teacher and central office administrator, Dr. Stone works with K–12 teachers and administrators on research-based instructional strategies, vocabulary instruction, curriculum development, and assessment design.

Do teacher evaluations really help teachers improve?

In recent years, annual performance reviews for teachers have become ubiquitous. Between 2009 and 2012 alone, the number of states requiring them jumped from 14 to 43. But do teacher evaluations make a difference in how teachers teach? Do they really help teachers improve?

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