Saturday, November 22, 2014

Academically Struggling and Behaviorally Challenging Students: Your Doctor Wouldn’t Practice this Way

Why We Need to Validate the “Experts’” Recommendations

Dear Colleagues,

   As I work with schools and districts nationwide— helping them to address the needs of academically struggling or behaviorally challenging students— I find it essential to ask a series of “drill-down” questions so that I fully understand the students’ difficulties and what the school has learned or is doing with the students.

   For example, when schools say that they are “doing” Response-to-Intervention (RtI) or Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) or even the Transformational (federal) option for school improvement--  exactly what are they doing?  We need to know the functional components or activities being implemented.  We need to know operational descriptions of the specific steps being implemented.  And, we need to know the intended outcomes, how they are being evaluated, and what the short- and long-term results are.

   In the absence of this information, we do not know if the correct instructional or intervention approaches have been selected. . . if they have been implemented in an evidence-based or research-based way. . . and whether they have been successful, partially successful, partially unsuccessful, or completely unsuccessful.

   If partially or completely unsuccessful, we should not necessarily conclude that “the student has a more complex or resistant problem” than we first thought.  Instead, we need to complete a data-based evaluation of the entire problem-solving process because, instead of this being a student-centered issue, we may have:

   *  Identified or prioritized the wrong problem
   *  Analyzed the problem incorrectly or incompletely
   *  Prioritized the intervention targets incorrectly, or selected the wrong intervention
   *  Implemented the intervention incorrectly, or without the needed resources or level of intensity
   *  Used an incomplete approach to evaluation, or evaluation tools that did not have the needed sensitivity or specificity

   I am not trying to make the problem-solving and evaluation process more complex or time-consuming.  Instead--  knowing that we are already investing the time, energy, resources, and expertise to solve the problem--  I am suggesting that we get the “biggest bang for the buck”. . . or return on our investment.
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We Do What We Know (or What We are Told to Do)

   At times, we are required to do something in our classroom, school, or district--  for example, by law, statute, or mandate--  and we are left to design and implement the specific approaches to functionally and successfully address the requirement in a short period of time.  When this occurs, in our busy, sometimes chaotic and crisis-filled professional world, we usually depend on others’ expertise to “work the problem.” 

   And, believe me, I do the same thing. 
   But, at the same time, when I solicit expertise to address my knowledge or skill weaknesses and gaps, I am mindful that— especially for complex problems--  there are “many roads to Rome.”  That is, my “experts” are likely provide me with different opinions, recommendations, supportive research studies, and solutions.  Ultimately, I will need to differentiate, validate, reconcile, and choose--  in an informed way--  what I think is the best pathway to my student- and staff-centered destination.  But, in the end, it is still my responsibility to both address the mandate, and choose the best solution (regardless of the experts who have counseled me).

   But, in my consultations around the country, this sometimes does not occur.  In fact, sometimes, the wrong solutions to the right problems are selected because decision-makers:

   *  Don’t have the time to make the informed choices
   *  Don’t have the information or skill to make the informed choices
   *  Implicitly “trust” the experts and do not externally validate their recommendations
   *  Cannot implement the right solutions due to limited resources
   *  Do not have the needed political or positional (e.g., within the “chain of command”) influence

   Among the wrong educational decisions still advocated by some national experts or national technical assistance centers (and still being implemented across the country because of the conditions above) are the following:

   *  Immediately accepting the results of a screening tool and moving immediately to (Tier I or II) interventions

   (Instead of validating the results of the screener, and doing the diagnostic assessments to identify the underlying problem that is then addressed by evidence- or research-based interventions linked to the assessment results.)
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   *  Assuming that the problem is student-centered, and that when students “do not respond to an intervention” that the student needs more intensive intervention

   (Instead of assessing for current or past instructional or curricular gaps or ineffective practices that validate that the student can learn or behave appropriately, but was not given the opportunity.)
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   *  Keeping struggling students in the core curriculum (with minimal remedial or intervention support) when their instructional and functional gaps are so large that they cannot benefit from either the core curriculum (because they do not have the prerequisite skills to learn at that level) or the intervention (because it cannot be implemented long enough or intensively enough)

   (Rather than redesigning the core curriculum for students functioning, for example, one or more grade levels below their grade-level placements so that they are largely taught at their instructional and optimal learning levels.)
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   *  Waiting for students to exhibit interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and/or emotional coping challenges in the school or classroom, and then providing them (Tier 2) social, emotional, or behavioral skill instruction in pull-out groups that isolate them from their peer group and from the settings where their challenging behavior occurs

   (Rather than providing a sequenced and scaffolded preschool through high school “Health, Mental Health, and Wellness” regular classroom curriculum that teaches all students these skills at the right developmental level--  focusing on prevention, positive school and classroom climates, prosocial interactions, and academic engagement.)
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   *  Utilizing a rigid Tier I to Tier II to Tier III progression where students must “fail” at the previous tier level in order to “qualify” for services at the next tier level

   (Rather than immediately matching the intensity level of services and supports needed to the severity of the problem--  based on the diagnostic assessments referenced above and immediately below.)
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   *  Waiting until Tier III to get either an initial or comprehensive historical, functional, and diagnostic picture of the student and his/her underlying problems--  so that the services, supports, strategies, and/or programs needed to address the situation are identified and implemented as quickly, intensively, and successfully as possible.
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What Would your Doctor Do ?  The “First Things First”

   When some of the above practices have been implemented, they end up (a) not solving the problem, (b) delaying the right services and supports to students, (c) making some students’ problems worse and/or more resistant to change, (d) blaming the student for the “problem,” such that missing or ineffective instruction or curricular factors are not evaluated, and (e) wasting time, energy, resources, and expertise.

   In the latter situation--  where a review of the student’s status and history, and a diagnostic assessment of the underlying reasons for the existing problem are delayed--  one might rhetorically ask, “Would your doctor do this?”  That is, would your doctor begin a medical treatment in the absence of your medical history, diagnostic medical tests, a consultation (if she or he was uncertain regarding the best treatment), and the scientific certainty that the selected intervention was the correct one.

   With the rhetorical answer being, “No,” below is a list of the “First Things First”— the first things that any teacher or educator needs to do before formally exploring the underlying reasons why a student is academically struggling or presenting with behavioral challenges:

   *  Review the Records.  Examine all of the existing cumulative, attendance, assessment, and intervention records on the student that are present in or available to the school (e.g., from previous schools or others) so that the student’s history, progress, and instructional and intervention successes and failures are catalogued.

   *  Determine the Student’s Current Functional Skills.  Complete the formal and informal assessments needed to identify the current functional skill level of the student in all academic and behavioral areas, how much progress the student has made on an annual basis, and how big the skill gaps are relative to the student’s chronological age and peers.

   *  Discount or Factor-in All Physical, Medical, and Biological Factors.  Validate (or not) the presence (or absence) of vision and hearing, diet and nutrition, sleep and stress, physical and physiological, neurological and biochemical, genetic and family history, and other medical factors that may be implicated in the academic or behavioral difficulties present.

   *  Interview the Parents/Guardians.  To determine the student’s physical, social, developmental, learning, and behavioral status and history, progress, and changes over time; their perspectives of the current problem and when it began; and their commitment to helping with interventions and other strategies.

   *  Interview Previous Teachers, Administrators, and Intervention Specialists.  To get their perspectives of the problem and its history, the data and analyses that they collected and conducted, the solutions that they tried along with their outcomes, and their interactions with the student over time.

   *  Observe the Problem in Real-Time.  Have someone observe the student in the settings where the problem exists. . . during times when it is present and when it is not present.  These observations provide both another objective perspective of the frequency, significance, and/or intensity of the problems, as well as a beginning analysis of the setting and situational factors that may co-exist with and/or trigger the problem.
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Summary and Conclusions

   Whether we are discussing a student who has not passed a state’s high stakes proficiency test, or a student who is not responding to effective instruction and classroom management with a teacher, we need to design systems and implement specific strategies that analyze why the problems exist so that the right instructional or intervention approaches can be implemented to address the root causes in effective and efficient ways.

   Beyond this, we need to be good “empirical consumers” so that, when we consult (directly or indirectly) the other experts, we have the ability to make objective, informed, and strategic choices as to whether their expertise is sound and what we need to do.

   While I know that all of this takes time, as noted above, we often are already investing the time--  many times, with minimal pay-back.  And so, the suggestion is to invest our time wisely at the front-end, so that we end up spending less (or no) time at the back-end. . . because the problem has been solved.   

   I hope that some of the ideas above are thought-provoking, and motivate you to look at how you are providing services and supports to all of your students.  If these ideas validate what you are doing. . . excellent !!!  If they uncover areas of improvement. . . I appreciate your willingness and dedication to the change and improvement process.

   Beyond all of this, as we approach the holidays and, especially, Thanksgiving this week, I hope that you will take some time to reflect on your accomplishments and the people in your life that share in these successes.  

   None of us works in isolation.  Whether to our colleagues or our families, take the time to give thanks and to give them thanks.  Working in our field is not easy sometimes. . . but it is important.

   I thank you for everything that you do to support your students, staff, and schools.



Saturday, November 8, 2014

A New Federal Report Documents What Low-Performing are NOT Doing to Succeed

The Problem?  The U.S. Department of Education's School Improvement Practices do not Guide Real Success     

Moving Toward Solutions:  12 Questions that WILL Guide School Improvement Success        

   Over the past weeks, I have begun to consult in an inner-city high school that has been on the state's "Low Performing Schools" list for the past eight years. Three superintendents later. . . five building principals later. . . and after spending over $3 million from its School Improvement Grant (SIG), nothing has changed and, in fact, things have gotten worse.
   District leaders are not helping the school leaders. . . who are not helping the instructional leaders. . . who are not helping the students. . . who - - approximately 40% of them - - are dropping out each year.
   And the U.S. Department of Education continues to push its four (now five) "models" of school improvement on the State Department of Education. . . which employs School Improvement Leaders who don't have a real clue as to how to do school improvement in a functional, realistic, and sustained way.
   Not that school improvement is easy to do successfully. But it seems like. . . after almost 14 years of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (originally "No Child Left Behind"), we should have better systems and better results. And yet we continue to leave far too many schools and too many students behind.
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A New Federal Report Describes How Low-Performing Schools are Trying to Succeed  

   Late last month (October 28), the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Science (IES) published a report on "Are Low- Performing Schools Adopting Practices Promoted by School Improvement Grants?"


   Based on Spring 2013 surveys from school administrators in 480 low- performing schools that were and were not implementing one of the four federal school turn-around models, the results indicated that:

   *** Schools on average were using only 20 of 32 improvement practices promoted by the SIG transformation or turn-around models.

   *** No schools reported adopting all practices required under the transformation or turn-around models.

   *** More than 96% of schools reported adopting each of the 3 most commonly adopted individual practices:    
(a) using data to inform and differentiate instruction;
(b) increasing technology access for teachers or using computer-assisted instruction; and 
(c) providing ongoing professional development that involves teachers working collaboratively or is facilitate by school leaders.

   *** For 16 of the 32 practices examined, the SIG schools were more likely to be using those practices.
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But How are the SIG Schools Performing? 

   But before we conclude that the SIG schools are having greater success because they are implementing more of the 32 improvement practices, let's remember that this now-$6 billion program has resulted in:

   *** A third of the participating schools getting worse academic results for their students

   *** Two-thirds of the participating schools showing improvement, but only marginal improvement

   *** Schools with two years of SIG funding and interventions realizing only a three percentage point gain in reading proficiency - - just about the same gain as all other U.S. schools not receiving the grant money

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What are these 32 Improvement Practices?

   It is critical to recognize that the 32 improvement practices promoted by the SIG transformation or turn-around models are incredibly global in nature, and that they do not specify the implementation steps needed to guide effective practice.  

   Moreover, they do not "drill down" to the essential questions needed for school improvement.

   These practices are described in the IES report (cited and linked to above) on Page 7,
Table 2.

   Here are some examples:

   * Use data to evaluate instructional programs
   * Use data to inform and differentiate instruction
   * Use benchmark or interim assessments at least annually
   * Implement strategies to ensure that ELL learners master academic content
   * Require student achievement growth as a component of teacher evaluations
   * Provide multiple-session professional development events
   * Replace the principal
   * Use financial incentives to recruit and retain effective principals
   * Change parent or community engagement strategies
   * Change discipline policies

   Parenthetically, I had a recent conversation with a state department of education official who told me that "my approaches to school improvement were too complex." She proceeded to say that superintendents and school principals needed improvement practices that were easy to implement and that did not take a lot of time.

   My response to her was that, "There is a different between a sophisticated practice that works, and a simple practice that does not work and that actually may make the 'problem' worse and more resistant to change."

   My unstated thought was to reflect on the things in my life that require sophisticated systems - - the electrical grid in my community, the planes that I fly on, the medical doctors that I visit.  

   I surely hope that the pilot commanding my flight to New Mexico tomorrow does not do things the "simple" way. . . I need him or her to do things the right way ! ! !
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What are 12 Essential Questions Needed for School Improvement?
   Before presenting to the School Leadership Team at the low-performing inner-city high school that I began working with last week, I sat down and wrote out 12 Essential Questions that I consistently use for school improvement. Critically, my "ultimately" school improvement goal is to:

Maximize the academic and social, emotional, and behavioral learning, mastery, progress, and independent skill levels of all students

   Moreover, I believe that every school should be working to improve to the next level of excellence.

   Finally, I recognize that there are specific strategies and approaches that are needed to answer each of these questions (see the Project ACHIEVE website for many of these:

   The 12 Essential Questions are:

   *** Do staff know the current functional skill level (mastery) of each student in literacy, math, oral expression, and written expression?

   *** Does each lesson, class, and course identify the expected results relative to the knowledge and content, and skills and application abilities expected of students? Does everyone know what mastery looks like?

   *** Do teachers and students assess learning and mastery accurately?

   *** Does each lesson, class, and course identify the prerequisite knowledge/content and skills/application needed in order to effectively teach (and have students learn) the expected outcomes?

   *** Do teachers have the curricular materials (direct and supplemental, course syllabi, class lessons) to effectively teach and differentiate?

   *** Are teachers working in cross-/trans-curricular ways and teams so that they are consistently teaching and reinforcing common literacy, math, oral expression, and written expression skills?

   *** Can teachers differentiate instruction given the number of different skill levels of students in their classrooms?

   *** Are students taking responsibility for their academic and social interactions and progress and that of their peers?

   *** Are students/staff taught and reinforced for interpersonal, social problem solving, conflict prevention/ resolution, and emotional coping skills?

   *** Are students/staff taught and reinforced for their skill in the areas of organization, time and stress management, and ways to prioritize their learning and social, emotional, and behavioral actions and activities?

   *** Do teachers understand that teaching is a performing art, that they need to constantly hone their craft, and they are all on-stage together?

   *** Are students and staff receiving the services, supports, strategies, and programs they need to be academically and interpersonally successful?
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   We are wasting time, effort, resources, and expertise on global school improvement approaches, that have not been adequately field-tested, and that do not have the implementation specificity needed for success.

   And because of this, we continue to lose students, staff, schools, and communities who are "turned off" of the approaches that actually work. 
   We have got to work together-- effectively and efficiently-- to establish and institutionalize these effective system, school, staff, and student approaches--even if they involve sophisticated strategies and multiple layers.  

   And we cannot be swayed by messages- - or messengers - - who want to oversimplify "school improvement" to the degree that success can never be attained.

   I hope that some of the ideas above resonate with you.  Please accept my best wishes as you continue to provide the services and supports that all of your students need. Have a GREAT week !!!