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.

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.