Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Our Secret Weapon

On Saturday March 24th I was fortunate to present at the National ASCD Conference held in "Sunny Philadelphia". This marked the first time I presented at an ASCD national event. Our session number was 1335 and the title "Transforming Schools Through Powerful and Systematic Walkthroughs". I was a co-presenter along with Dr. Pamela Moore, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, Ms. Arlene Jenkins, principal of the Mount Pleasant Elementary School, and Ms. Joanne Colacurcio, supervisor for instructional technology. I must thank them for their dedication to our district. Additionally, our story was made possible because of our students and staff members continued pursuit of excellence.

How do you transform a school district?

According to Kouzes & Posner (2006), collaboration and teamwork are essential to getting extraordinary things done in today's world. Moreover, people must be given the power to be in control of their own lives if they are to accomplish great things. This is at the heart of our success story and transformation as a district. Previously, I blogged about our "Road to Baldrige" (story to be continued...) and shared our approach to influence extraordinary change through the use of "Classroom Instruction that Works (CITW) and McRel PowerWalkthrough". The secret weapon is embedded in the K & P quote "people must be able to control their own lives". While we (administrators) controlled choosing the instructional model (CITW) and tool (McRel) for measurement and applied the system controls to deploy, manage, and monitor this change effort, ultimately the staff members owned the control over our success. At each step, we relied on teachers for input, to be the expert trainers, to provide examples of best practice classroom applications of CITW, how far our district grows is limitless- and teacher controlled.

Early on in our effort to improve the quality of instruction throughout the Millville School District, many referred to it as "the McRel initiative". This made me cringe every time I heard it because when I hear the word initiative I immediately think of "silver bullet programs". As a teacher I feared learning of any new program that promised to fix all of our problems because I knew once implemented, it would likely fail, and we would be introduced to the next one. This is why so many of teachers become completely overwhelmed and fear change. Bryan Goodwin, also presented at ASCD 2012 and used an extremely effective slide to represent how teachers have been bombarded with reform initiatives. Visualize a beautiful, smiling, 4th grader with her hand raised - during an 'ah-ha learning moment' - the image of why all of us got into education in the first place. Now imagine a series of "SPAM Pop Ups" each with a different reform expectation or program designed to fix our school problems until you can no longer see the student in the picture. This visual representation captures why reform efforts fail time and time again. We lose sight of the students, the art & science of instruction, and instead force teachers to comply with the implementation of the next program or initiative. Mostly, all of this is done with the purest of intentions, people want success - administrators look for answers and teachers try their best to keep implementing the next program hoping that maybe this will be the one. Many outside of education question whether we are doing enough to improve our students' achievement levels - while most of us on the inside know that we are actually doing too much (or at least too many things).

What we are doing in Millville is not Rocket Science, and it also is NOT an initiative. Simply, we are building our human resource capital by focusing our efforts on instructional strategies, vetted by years of research, to have the greatest impact on raising student achievement. PERIOD. Where the "rocket-science" is taking place is in the classrooms and in the small professional learning community conversations taking place across our district. We have a common language that includes the CITW strategies, becoming a world-class district, and being very intentional about our efforts. We have limited our focus on applying pressure to the levers that will yield the highest results:

1. Developing systems which yield results - Systems Thinking
2. Create a culture where high expectations are the norm - World Class
3. Provide a full variety of student supports - Comprehensive Student Services
4. Guarantee challenging & intentional instruction - CITW, McRel, RIGOR

The presentation on Saturday concluded with an explanation that we will have to come back next year to continue our story. I am certain that we have made significant progress and our teachers have embraced a commitment to continuous growth and excellence. We are working together as a team around a common language to raise the level of Rigor throughout our district. RIGOR is not a Four Letter Word by Barbara Blackburn continues to be very influential in our work. Our next steps include a full revamping of our student assessments (aligned to the Common Core) so we can capture formative assessment data to better inform teacher planning. We also plan to correlate our students' summative assessment outcomes to our McRel WalkThrough data in order to determine how instructional strategy improvement links to student outcomes. Lastly, along the way, we plan to have fun. If we do not enjoy what we do, those for whom we do it, will not enjoy being with us. We must embrace the students' natural interests and strengths (see "The Switch") as well as the technology around us.

As for my first experience as an ASCD presenter - it was totally awesome. ASCD was extremely organized and supportive of their presenters. We were scheduled to present at 3pm on Saturday. Our room held a maximum capacity of 100 people. By 2:35 pm the room was packed. As a presenter, it was both exciting and frightening to have a full house. Thankfully, our team was prepared - and we all took comfort in there is safety in numbers. We even practiced a fake fainting episode should things go terribly wrong. Fortunately, we did not need to deploy that tactic.

Have a great day!

References:
Kouzes & Posner, A Leader's Legacy
Blackburn, Barbara, Rigor is not a Four Letter Word
Goodwin, Bryan, ASCD Presentation 2012

Gentile, David, The Switch