Are Good Schools Simply a Collection of Good Teachers?

This question is actually reframed from a line in Richard Allington’s and Patricia Cunningham’s resource Schools That Work: Where All Children Learn to Read and Write, 3rd Ed. (Pearson, 2007). I was looking through this text as I prepared a site license of my book for another school. Allington and Cunningham devote a couple of pages on types of portfolios that can be used in schools for more authentic assessment. Below is the larger quote in which this question is derived. It is one of five “truths” they have uncovered after a combined 50 years of experience in elementary schools:

Good schools are collections of good teachers, and creating schools where all children become readers and writers is simply a matter of figuring out how to support teachers in their efforts to develop the expertise needed to foster the reading and writing proficiencies of every student. (318)

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The authors do address the role of the building administrator in their resource. For example, they advocate for principals to support Teachers as Readers book study groups, as well as creating their own literacy networks (Administrators as Readers). Also, the authors describe situations in which a school principal has gone above and beyond normal practice to advocate for students, such as supervising a morning study center and making visits to homes of students who have missed a lot of school. I’ve applied their suggestions to my own practice.

Here’s the thing: I am not sure if these activities have made any kind of large impact on student learning, either in academic outcomes or in student dispositions toward learning. Furthermore, while I believe that modeling good instruction in literacy can have an influence on teacher practice, for those educators that may not employ best practice, they will likely not change their instruction in light of this type of leadership. Change in actions comes from a change in beliefs. And changing beliefs can only occur when the person that needs to improve is open-minded and has a desire to grow.

That is why I believe the principalship deserves a bit more focus when authors and experts consider whole school improvement initiatives. Recent resources have highlighted the importance of the principal. In Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014), Regie Routman devotes a whole chapter of her text to “Leadership Priorities”. She makes specific suggestions, such as leading like a coach (193) and making instructional walks a daily practice (197). Her own experiences and her reading of the research leads her to the conclusion that “school leadership matters as much as teacher quality” (181).

Baruti Kafele, a long time school principal, arrived at a similar conclusion. In his book The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence (ASCD, 2015), Kafele also promotes active leadership, encouraging school leaders to be present in classrooms daily and help create coherence in instructional practice throughout the school. He believes that the responsibility for the success of a school resides firmly on the shoulders of the principal.

When the principal can maintain the attitude that his or her overall leadership determines the success or failure of the school, students will benefit greatly. As I like to say, “Show me a school with extraordinary teachers in every classroom but an ineffective principal and I’ll show you an underperforming school.” (9)

What all I have shared here does not contradict what Allington and Cunningham have found in their own observations and studies. However, I do believe that up until recently, not enough attention was devoted to improving the capacities of school leaders. Even today, there is too much of a focus on trying to measure individual teachers’ practices at the state level, and not enough attention on how to accurately and authentically assess the level of effectiveness a school might have on student learning. The outcomes of these results should largely be attributed to the leader of a school.

With that, I’d like to suggest a slight update to Allington’s and Cunningham’s position:

Good schools are collections of the right teachers.

What is bolded is what I changed, for a number of reasons.

  • There are a lot of good teachers out there, but not all of them may be a good fit for a school, team or department.

I’m thinking of a few superstars who by their own right (and probably their own admission) are fantastic at what they do, but are unable and/or unwilling to share their expertise with others for a variety of reasons. Maybe they are afraid that colleagues will take credit for something they developed. Maybe they take pride in having their students outperform other students, even within the same building. Whatever the reason, they can be toxic within a learning community and disrupt a previously positive environment. This can have a negative on a school’s collective instructional impact, even if the kids in that teacher’s classroom succeed. That’s not okay.

  • Who a teacher is today is not necessarily who they might be tomorrow.

If they have a willingness to grow and better themselves as a professional, we as leaders have an obligation to support them in their self-improvement. Simply hiring our way toward an excellent school and/or getting rid of the less effective teachers isn’t as easy nor as effective as others may lead you to believe. I’d much rather work with someone who is willing to better themselves than the alternative. In fact, I’d rather hire a professional with room to grow and a learner mindset than someone who is a superstar but is unwilling to work with colleagues for the betterment of the organization. Teaching is a team sport.

  • Sometimes a teacher is just in the wrong position.

Like a coach of a sports team who moves a third baseman to the outfield, a school leader can and should assign teachers to where their knowledge, skills and disposition are the best match. This can be assessed through frequent instructional walkthroughs, student assessment results, and observation of staff during professional collaboration activities. Principals who acquiesce their teacher assignment responsibilities give up one of their most powerful tools for creating grade level or department teams that have a high level of trust and effectiveness. When making these changes, I always try to highlight the positive attributes of the teacher as part of the rationale for this change.

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I believe a good school is more than just a collection of good teachers. A good school is developed by bringing together a team of educators with diverse interests, skills, and backgrounds. Yes, they are good teachers, and can also direct their own professional learning, work collaboratively with colleagues, and engage families in school activities. This occurs through the thoughtful and intentional work of a principal. To be fair, I’ve searched for follow up work by Allington and Cunningham that addresses this essential element of schools that work for all students. So far, I haven’t found anything. If they were to provide a 4th edition of their essential text, I hope they consider this area.

I Say Let Them Read

This post is actually a comment I left on Annie Murphy Paul’s blog, on her post titled “Teens Are Choosing Books That Are Too Easy For Them”.

Where I agree with the concerns of this report is that secondary students do need more guided instruction. By guided, I mean the teacher conferring with readers on a regular basis, asking them questions about the text and giving support in the form of strategy instruction. And I am not against reading the classics and being challenged as a reader from time to time. But the job of the teacher is to scaffold the students’ experiences with the text so they are successful, with strategies such as questioning and graphic organizers. It shouldn’t be left to the parents.

That said, this report fails to cite any research that would give any validity to these concerns. What research says about reading text that is “easy” for students is very clear:

– The most effective teachers provide text for students they could easily read (Allington and Johnston, 2002; Keene, 2002; Langer, 2001)
– High levels of reading accuracy produce the best reading growth (Ehri et al, 2007)
– Reading comprehension predicts reading volume and reading comprehension performance (Guthrie et al, 1999)

You can read more about this research in the excellent resource What Really Matters in Response to Intervention by Richard Allington. I also recommend his article Intervention All Day Long, found at http://goo.gl/lTWuH. In the article, Dr. Allington actually goes into a secondary school and concretely shows the fallacy of matching readers with text that is too difficult.

Where some seem to see a problem in students not selecting challenging texts, I see this issue as a success story. Students are reading! Who here reads books because they are challenging? I don’t. I choose to read text that is interesting, engaging, and meaningful to me as a reader and a person. Sounds like this is what these students are doing. For the most part, I say leave them alone and let them read.

Beliefs vs. Values

My school is at a point of transition. We are nearing the completion of a three year professional development plan involving the Reading-Writing Connection, developed by Regie Routman. We have seen evidence that the instructional framework we have incorporated into our classrooms, the Optimal Learning Model, has helped increase student achievement. Our core literacy beliefs grew from only two the first year to eight this year. The staff participated in many different professional development activities over the three year period to arrive at this point.

So where do we go from here? Are beliefs alone enough? These were a few thoughts that have recently come to mind.  As a leader, I think it is okay to sometimes have more questions than answers. To seek more information and consider the next steps, I started learning more about professional learning communities. Over the summer, I read Professional Learning Communities at Work by Rick DuFour and Robert Eaker. This is a great place to start the journey toward developing collaborative teams with a singular focus of student learning.

However, one section of the resource touched on beliefs in a way that was different than what I had previously understood. The authors stated that beliefs alone were not enough. You needed to have values. The authors define values as core statements that clarify how a shared vision, or a list of beliefs, becomes a reality. It was made clear that as leaders, we need to focus on behaviors, not beliefs.

Okay, this is a problem, I initially thought. How can two highly respected educators such as Regie Routman and Rick DuFour be on opposite ends of the spectrum on this issue? Confused, I went back into the resources my school team received at a literacy and leadership institute.

I found my answer. Judy Wallis, a literacy consultant, explained that beliefs and values (also called “practices”) are part of a continuum for a school in change. She explained that schools can develop their shared beliefs first. These are the principles that, as Judy put it, you would be willing to fall on your sword for. An example she shared was, “We believe students should have wide access to books they can and want to read.” Would any educator worth their salt disagree with this belief?

Once beliefs are established, schools can then consider their practices, or values. Judy defined these practices as beliefs in action. Reading the previous paragraph, a value for the example belief could be, “A sufficient amount of time will be allocated for independent reading every day”.  This makes sense to me now. You cannot have one without the other. A common language is required if we are expected to implement common practices. This is especially needed in today’s educational world where the initiative du jour can cause a school to lose their focus on best practices and student learning.

Does your school have a set of common beliefs and practices that you all adhere to? How did you get to this point? Please share in the comments, as my school is very much still on the pathway toward becoming a community of learners. If your building has not started discussing your shared beliefs and you are not sure where to begin, I highly recommend Richard Allington’s Educational Leadership article Every Child, Every Day. My staff read it and discussed it briefly, but we only touched on a few aspects. I believe a school could take this one article and spend an entire year discussing the six elements and how they fit with current literacy practices.

Does Intervention Have to be a Pull-Out?

During a very informative Twitter chat on Professional Learning Communities (#atplc) led by John Wink (@johnwink90), I tweeted the following:

“Common misconception: Intervention is a pull out. Research shows interventions are just as successful in classroom (R Allington). #atplc”

I got a few questions after sharing, such as “Can the regular classroom teacher also administer an intervention?” and “What specific research actually supports this?”.

I discovered this information in the excellent resource Schools That Work: Where All Children Read and Write by Richard Allington and Patricia Cunningham. The authors provide a lot of practical ideas for improving student learning. A common thread throughout this book is schools don’t necessarily need more staffing and funding to get better. Rather, they should relook at what they already have and do things a little differently. (I just became aware that there is a third edition of this resource.)

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Take intervention blocks. Many schools are now required to insert 30-45 minute periods at each grade level for intervention. This concept is proposed by Dr. Michael Rettig among others. With the daily school schedule already broken up for specials, lunch, recess and more, this model may serve to further fracture an already disconnected school day. As another option, Allington and Cunningham suggest a more flexible approach: Have special program teachers provide all their instructional support in the regular classroom rather than in a location down the hall (74).

The research to support this method has been around for almost twenty years (Gelzheiser et al., 1992; Sharpe et al., 1994). The two authors summarize these studies by stating that in-class instructional support, whether remediation or special education, produces achievement gains at least as large (my emphasis) as the gains from pull-out instruction without having a negative impact on the achievement of other students in the room (75).

It is not suggested that all intervention should be a push-in model; teachers have to understand their students’ needs. What works best for each individual may be different, including location. For example, a student might be easily distracted in the regular classroom, or they may be embarrassed to be observed by peers reading easier books. In both situations a pull-out model probably works best. However, a positive of intervening in the regular education classroom is the potential for more and better academic collaboration between the specialist and the classroom teacher. The specialist sees the learning targets students are working toward in the classroom and can better connect the intervention to what their student is learning during regular instruction.

Here are more reasons for using this approach to intervention:

– The stigmatism of being pulled out for a “special class” is removed.
– Transitions can be emotionally difficult for some students.
– Each teacher can observe the other teacher instruct, which can lead to some informal yet powerful peer coaching opportunities, encouraged by many educators such as Regie Routman (2012).
– Less instructional time is wasted going back and forth to and from the intervention room. Allington and Cunningham estimate that, at a minimum, 10 minutes are wasted each day for a student during transitions (124), including getting work put away and back out in the regular classroom. This equates to about one hour per week, or almost four instructional days for an entire school year. What teacher wouldn’t want four more days of instruction to work with their students without having to extend the school year?

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Is the Change Worth the Messiness?

As with any significant change, doing things differently to try to increase student achievement usually involves altering the way we teach. It is uncomfortable, messy and is usually met with resistance. The way I may plan to approach this in my school is finding one or even two people who are willing to try this out, even on a very small basis. If positive results are observed, word will spread and more staff will be interested in giving it a shot. At the same, I am keeping an open mind by remembering that no one process works for all schools, including my own.

References

Allington, R.L., & Cunningham, P.M. (2002). Schools That Work: Where All Children Read and Write (2 ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Gelzheiser, L. M., Meyers, J., & Pruzek, R.M. (1992). Effects of pull-in and pull-out approaches to reading instruction for special education and remedial reading students. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 3, 133-149.

Routman, R. (2012). Mapping a pathway to schoolwide highly effective teaching. Phi Delta Kappan, 93, 5, 56-61.

Sharpe, M.N., York, J.L., & Knight, J. (1994). Effects of inclusion on the academic performance of classrooms without disabilities: A preliminary study. Remedial and Special Education, 15, 281-287.

Literacy, Leadership and Walkthroughs

I recently attended the Literacy and Leadership Institute in Madison, WI. It was hosted by Regie Routman, creator of the Reading-Writing Connection professional development series (which my building uses). This may have been the best conference I have attended. Everything was connected to best practices. A lot of what the presenters at this conference shared is based on research and publications by Richard Allignton and Peter Johnston.

Summarizing all that I learned into one post would be like trying to stuff an elephant into a foot locker. Instead, I attempted to synthesize my thinking by creating a walkthrough checklist connected to best literacy practices. It is based on an article published by Richard Allington in Phi Delta Kappan in 2002, titled “What I've Learned About Effective Reading Instruction From a Decade of Studying Exemplary Elementary Classroom Teachers” (a straightforward if not catchy title). I condensed his findings about what exemplary teachers do into twelve statements.

 

Time

  • Students are actually reading and writing around 50% of the time.
  • Students are reading independently, meeting with the teacher for guided reading, and/or reading and writing in the content areas.

Texts

  • Students are reading texts that allow for high levels of accuracy, fluency and comprehension.
  • Classroom texts reflect a broad range of interests, diversity and levels.

Teaching

  • Teacher gives direct, explicit demonstrations of thinking strategies that good readers and writers use when they read and write.
  • Teacher assigns work that is responsive to students' needs and fosters a transition of thinking strategies to independent use.

Talk

  • Teacher facilitates lots of purposeful dialogue – both teacher/student and student/student.
  • Classroom talk is more conversational than interrogational.

Tasks

  • Teacher assigns activities that are substantial, challenging and complex.
  • Students are allowed some choice and autonomy in work to promote ownership and engagement.

Testing

  • Teacher evaluates student work based on effort and growth rather than just achievement.
  • Students take responsibility for their scores with the help of clear and visible academic expectations.

Using this checklist as a Google Form on my iPad, I could walk through classrooms and document how often best practices are occurring. Teachers are already used to me being in the classroom to read aloud or just observe. Is this a logical next step? It was suggested that if a checklist is used to document frequency of best practices, it needs to be sandwiched with positive feedback, probably in the form of a written note and verbal praise before leaving the classroom. I will defintiely need to reference Choice Words and Opening Minds by Peter Johnston often as I begin providing feedback. A hybrid of both a checklist and a written narrative may work best for my staff and me.

If I was the teacher, would this checklist along with a short observational narrative have the potential to help me improve my own practices? Would I feel defensive and nervous, or wonder what my principal's motivation is?

As the principal, will this type of walkthrough give me a reliable set of data to help determine where we are growing and where we need to grow? Could I eventually expect the teachers to use this process and observe each other, using a peer coaching format?

 

I need to sit on this draft of an idea and come back to it later. I would welcome any feedback!