When I evaluate the quality of professional development that our team is doing in school, I look at how effectively we are building capacity with the system through examining:
- Changes in instructional practice;
- Improvements in student learning outcomes;
- Creation of a culture which balances teacher risk-taking with scaffolds, support, and encouragement.
There are schools where we have a positive relationship and significant investment in supporting change in teacher practice but I raise with leadership my concerns about our impact because we’re not building capacity in the system to support ongoing learning. Our goal is to work ourselves out of a job! I can think of several sites where we have invested significantly in providing professional development through a model that includes onsite workshops; webinars with national experts; classroom observation and coaching; inquiry cycles with multi-media resources to support teacher professional learning community work; and virtual design support and coaching with the school literacy coach. We know we are doing good work but I am led to raise questions with leadership about whether collectively we are aligning our priorities to ensure impact on the system as a whole. We don’t want business as usual except for the days in which we are there. Our goal is to enact our work in such a way that we create increasing coherence and capacity in the system as a whole.
Schools most expensive investment is their teachers. In many of the high poverty rural and urban schools in which we work, there is high teacher turnover. This means we find committed teachers often with limited experience and skills about effective instruction or the student population and community culture in which they have just begun to work. It’s our role as partners to build that both in teachers and in the leadership team. We come alongside instructional leaders to help implement a clear, coherent strategy that identifies instructional focus and priorities. This generally involves limiting new initiatives and creating a safe space for teachers to implement new practices. In other words, we believe that a schools’ investment in having us come to work with their teachers will produce minimal long-term, sustained change if we don’t also collaborate with the system leaders to create the organizational conditions that ensure ongoing learning, collaboration, and shared accountability even when we are not onsite.
I once thought my role was to help students. I shifted to working with teachers so I could help more students. But that’s not enough to create improved systems. The past decade of my professional career has been focused on the critical impact of the organizational system on teaching and learning. This approach isn’t unique but reflects the investments educational thought leaders and leading foundations and high capacity districts are making in education. We often highlight the work of John Hattie on collective efficacy which demonstrates that more significant impact can happen in student learning from taking average teachers and making them a team with shared agreements and accountability than by finding a few superstars and letting them go on their own. We also draw from the work of Michael Fullan on the appropriate system drivers for change and the focus on administrators as instructional leaders who play one of the critical levers to support and sustain change when engaging in their work fully as instructional leaders and not administrators or managers. Collective efficacy means we work together to strengthen the whole.
Administrators in many schools are running around incredibly busy, working extremely hard, but are missing key steps that are needed to create the kind of change in teaching and learning that must happen. Our goal is to support principals and coaches in moving from busy-ness to strategic leadership where they have a razor sharp focus on those actions that will be most significant for leveraging change. We partner regularly with high poverty schools, both urban and rural, to improve literacy outcomes by investing in organizational capacity building and high quality, collaborative professional learning for principals, district leaders, and teachers. We change systems not because we focus on improving teaching (which we do) but because we attend equally to the knowledge and practice of the system leaders and the conditions they put in place. My experiences reflect a large body of research and educational policy around school turn around. LOCI has three areas of focus, based upon this work, that should be essential components of any model to improve literacy learning for students and guide your decisions about consultants with whom you choose to partner:
- Creation of organizational conditions that build capacity for change through attention to coherence of initiatives; allocation of resources; creating a culture that promoted both safety and risk taking and attention to strategy;
- Design of professional learning systems (not one day activities) that built on assets in working to address areas of needs; make classroom practice public for evaluation, coaching, feedback, and learning; is rooted in collaboration between teachers and instructional leaders to create shared agreements about what good instruction looks like and how it is assessed; leads to collective accountability for student learning outcomes.
- Focus on research based effective literacy teaching that makes visible daily instructional focus, assessment of learning, and strategies to support struggling students. In other words, we’re focused on making sure teachers are using research based teaching practices; have clear instructional goals and know how they will assess them; and have a plan in place for working with students who don’t meet their learning goals.
The message I want instructional leaders who partner with us to understand is that improving literacy outcomes requires attention to instructional leadership; organizational capacity; and professional learning. We want to do impactful work.
More information about KaiLonnie Dunsmore:
KaiLonnie has 25 years’ experience in education as a classroom teacher, university professor, foundation director, and research fellow. She has also directed $4.55 million U.S. Department of Education funded grants to support literacy development in school districts across 5 states. In addition, she coaches Department of Education staff on behalf of the Council of the Chief State School Officers.
PS to readers of this blog. To follow a dynamic turn around principal who gets the challenge and possibility of leading, follow the blog of http://leadvibes.blogspot.com/2017/09/if-you-think-im-urgent.html