Saturday, March 28, 2015

March Madness: How Effective Schools are Like Successful Basketball Teams

How to apply the Characteristics of a Successful Basketball Program to the Design and Process of an Effective School

   With many sports enthusiasts spending this and next week continuing their participation in the “rite of spring” called “March Madness,” it is interesting to think about how many teams have been in the NCAA tournament for five, ten, fifteen, or for over 20 years in a row. 

   And, while no team has won the National Championship in consecutive years in a long while, there are many teams that consistently qualify to play, and a select number of teams that are almost constantly in the “Sweet Sixteen,” the “Elite Eight,” and even the “Final Four.”

   So what characterizes a successful basketball program. . . and why am I discussing this in a blog devoted to education?

   Ignoring both questions initially, let’s first discuss what defines a “successful” basketball program.
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Defining Basketball Success

   As a graduate of a small liberal arts college in Maine (Bowdoin College. . . “Go you Bears!”), I can tell you (seriously !!!) that the joy of playing the game, competing, and improving was as much a definition of success as even winning.  Indeed, when you play Division III or Division II sports, when the game ceases to be fun, then it becomes a job. . .an expectation. . . or even a chore.

   While I understand that many Division I NCAA basketball teams have players who dream of “winning it all,” one way to look at the tournament is that there is one winner and 67 (counting the play-in games) losers.  And so, with these remote odds, how many players are going to invest their time, energy, and sweat in a “success” that is so improbable?  Not many, I would think. 

   Critically, I believe that successful teams are successful because everyone involved has a personal commitment to be the best they can be. . . both to themselves and to their teammates.  And to be the best, they need to be the best on every day, at every practice, and during every drill. 

   Said another way, successful teams have players, coaches, and support staff who focus on the journey and not just on a single destination.  They are committed to consistent and continuous learning, practice, collaboration, improvement, persistence, and integrity.  And (once again) the journey needs to be fun. . . not all the time, but enough of the time for the experience to be positive, meaningful, and worthwhile.
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What Makes a Successful Basketball Program?

   At the risk of oversimplifying, a successful NCAA basketball program. . . given the definition of success above. . . has a number of essential characteristics:

   * Committed players with the potential to be successful as individuals and together as a team

   * Committed coaches who know how to educate their players. . . how to maximize their athletic, academic, and personal strengths, while minimizing their weaknesses; and how to motivate their individual play at the same time as their team play

   * A great playbook. . . with offensive and defensive strategies that can be flexibly adapted to different opponents and game-related situations

   * Great training facilities with modern equipment and technology that are maintained in good working condition

   * A training and practice schedule that provides sufficient time for the team to learn the playbook, to practice all plays to mastery, and to transfer the mastery into game-level competence by simulating different probable and improbable game situations

   * A realistic but demanding schedule with good-quality opponents so that the players and team have opportunities to evaluate their progress over time and against the types of teams that they will face in “The Big Dance”

   * The presence of fans who provide unconditional support, and who motivate the team to perform beyond their potential
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   Critically, these characteristics need to evolve and “jell” over time to the degree that the whole (team) is greater than the sum of its (player) parts. 

   Moreover, the journey is not always easy or sequential or continuous or without setbacks.  But the journey has short- and long-term goals, ways to evaluate progress, and it depends more on planning and preparation, than on wishful thinking and good fortune.
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So. . .What Does this have to do with Education?

   If you haven’t “gotten” it yet, the characteristics of a successful NCAA Basketball Team- - whether the program has been a National Champion or not- - are the same as the characteristics of an effective school. 

   And, it should not be lost on any of us that basketball’s March Madness is occurring at the same time as the March Madness of testing that is currently occurring in most schools across the country.

   To make the connection crystal clear, just as a national championship is not the most important measure of a successful basketball program, having every student proficient on a single high-stakes test is not the essential benchmark of an effective school (while this outcome is desirable, welcome, and certainly an indication that a school, in some respects, is effective).

   And so, just as with a basketball program, we need to have multiple measures that define success, and we must recognize that the joy of student (and staff) participation, learning, and improvement is as much a definition of success as receiving the “trophy” of student proficiency and being an achieving (for example, A-rated) school.

   But beyond the definition of success, let’s revisit the characteristics that lead to success. 

   Using the characteristics of a successful basketball program above as a guide, successful schools need the following:

   * Committed students (i.e., players) with the potential to be successful- - academically, socially, and behaviorally- - both as individuals and as part of a larger peer group

   * Committed teachers (or coaches) who (a) are supported by other staff, administrators, school board members, and community leaders; and (b) know how to educate their students. . . how to maximize their strengths as learners and as future citizens (while minimizing their weaknesses). . . and how to motivate them individually and, once again, as part of a larger peer group

   * A great curriculum (i.e., playbook) in all academic and health, mental health, and wellness areas. . . with built-in differentiated and remedial strategies that can be flexibly adapted to different students’ learning styles and capabilities, and an instructional focus on learning, mastery, and application

   * Great schools (i.e., training facilities) that are safe, and “equipped” with the staff, curricular and supplemental materials, equipment and technology, and other resources needed for student, staff, and school success

   * A school and classroom (i.e., training and practice) schedule that provides sufficient time for students to learn and master targeted information and skills, and to practice and transfer their skills (individually and in project-based, cooperative, or lab situations) into real-world, 21st Century, college and career-ready competence by simulating different applied situations from preschool through high school

   * A professional development, coaching and supervision, collegial consultation, and staff accountability process that helps teachers, support staff, and administrators to learn, master, and effectively apply their knowledge and skills such that differentiated instruction and interventions for students (as needed) are implemented with high impact

   * A realistic but demanding instructional approach that provides students with learning courses, units, and lessons (i.e., good-quality opponents) that are at an instructional (as opposed to frustration) level where they can learn, advance, and meaningfully evaluate their progress over time such that they are prepared for multiple post-high school options

   * The presence of peers, staff, and parents (i.e., fans) who provide unconditional support, and who motivate them to perform at or beyond their potential

   As with a successful basketball program, these student, staff, and school characteristics need to evolve and “jell” over time to the degree that the whole school is greater than the sum of its parts. 

   Moreover, with new students and staff coming on board each year, ongoing changes in curricular standards, and innovative approaches constantly being developed and introduced, the journey is not always easy or sequential or continuous or without setbacks. 

   But the journey must proceed, and to succeed, it must include short- and long-term goals, ways to evaluate progress, and a focus on strategic planning, preparation, and productivity.
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   Whether it is a successful basketball program, an effective school, a good-to-great business, or a productive agency or organization, there are core and common qualities and characteristics that are shared by each.

   Great basketball programs don’t just happen. . . and they can be found in the “Sweet Sixteen”. . . as well as at Division II and III. . . and just as easily at your local high school.

   Effective schools also don’t just happen. . . but their success must be measured across a variety of variables that reflect where they start, what they have to work with, how they use and build capacity, how well they implement, and how they sustain their growth, progress, and short- and long-term successes.

   Mariah Burton Nelson once said, “Think of yourself as an athlete. I guarantee you it will change the way you walk, the way you work, and the decisions you make about leadership, teamwork, and success.”

   And so, I encourage you and your school to think like a successful basketball program because:

   Effective schools. . . build relationships:

“In leadership, there are no words more important than trust. In any organization, trust must be developed among every member of the team if success is going to be achieved.” Mike Kryzewski (Coach K)
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   Effective schools. . . prepare:

“The key is not the “will to win” . . . everybody has that.  It is the will to prepare to win that is important.”  Bobby Knight
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   Effective schools. . . execute:

“Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen.”  Michael Jordan
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   and Effective schools. . . understand success:

"Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming."  John Wooden
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   As basketball’s March Madness continues, I hope that your brackets are intact, and that “your team” is still playing.  But, if not, remember. . . only one team cuts down the nets.  The rest celebrate the involvement, the experience, and the journey.



Sunday, March 15, 2015

Restorative Practices and Reducing Suspensions: The Numbers Just Don’t Add Up

A New Center for Civil Rights Remedies Report Concludes (again) that Schools are NOT Closing the Minority and Exceptional Student Discipline Gap

Reports say that the Chicago Public Schools’ Restorative Practice Policies and Approaches Have Decreased the “Numbers,” but Increased “Havoc and Lawlessness”        

Dear Colleagues,  

   Steve Tobak once said,

“Great innovators don’t see different things. . . they see the same things differently.”

   Today’s discussion is about the continuing problem, in schools across the country, relative to the disproportionate number of poor, minority, and special education students who are suspended or expelled from school (or sent to the principal’s office, or put into alternative school programs) due to their “discipline problems.”

   More specifically, I will first highlight a report published last month by The Center for Civil Rights Remedies that again documents, in great detail, the statement above.  This will be followed with comments on a related February 25th article in the Chicago Tribune by Juan Perez Jr.  Mr. Perez reported that the Chicago Public School District’s changes, last year, to its Student Code of Conduct, its training in classroom management and use of restorative practices, and its $15 million investment on nearly five dozen vendors to work on school discipline issues with teachers and students has resulted in- - according to one teacher- - “lawlessness.”

   In the end, I will outline the student, staff, and school approaches needed to increase students’ interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional coping skills, decrease their social, emotional, and behavioral challenges, and thereby close the school suspension disproportionality gap.

   Now applying Tobak’s quote. . . It is indisputable that poor, minority, and special education students are being disproportionately suspended or expelled from school for “behavioral difficulties” that inconsistently range from minor infractions to major offenses.  But it is interesting that different “innovators” are “seeing the same things differently,” and responding (often inappropriately) from somewhat singular, “one size fits all” perspectives. 

For example:

   * Policymakers often see the problem as needing changes in policy- - for example, changing an inappropriate zero tolerance policy to a na├»ve restorative justice policy

   * District administrators often see the problem as needing changes in practices- - that is, adding more training (for example, in classroom management) to increase the competence of teachers and others to prevent and/or respond to students’ behavioral challenges

   * School administrators often see the problem as needing changes in personnel- - that is, adding more people (for example, untrained paraprofessional “behavior interventionists” or, as in Chicago, “restorative practice coaches”) to increase the number of staff available to “manage” disruptive students

   * And, student advocates often see the problem as needing changes in perspective- - focusing on changing how different students are perceived- - along a continuum that actually ranges from some staff’s unintentional or misinformed misperceptions, to other staff’s intentional or ignorant biases or racial prejudices.

   In actuality, all of these changes are potentially needed. . . but they are often applied randomly, in the absence of sound data-based analyses, as top-down mandates, without the necessary training and resources, and in isolated and (once again) singular and “one size fits all” ways.  It’s almost as if we are throwing spaghetti at the wall- - concluding that it’s done when it sticks.

   Disproportionality is a multi-factored student, staff, school, and community issue.  In order to solve it, we need to “work the problem,” and not just “change the numbers.”
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A New National Report on Disproportionate School Suspensions

   Last month, The Center for Civil Rights Project published a new report (Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap?) analyzing the school suspension data from our nation’s schools during the 2011-2012 school year.

   During this school year:

   *  Nearly 3.5 million public school students were suspended out of school at least once
   *  1.55 million students were suspended at least twice
   *  Suspension rates differed significantly across schools, districts, states, and time- - but high-suspension districts suspended more than 1 out of every 10 elementary school students, and 1 out of every 4 secondary students
   * With the average suspension lasting 3.5 days, nearly 18 million days of instruction were lost by our nation’s students during this single school year

But most importantly, according to the Report:

   *  The biggest difference in suspension rates related to how specific school and district administrators approached and implemented their disciplinary policies.
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   More Data.  Relative to students’ racial, English Language Learner, and special education background or status, the Report provided the following suspension data (see figures below) from the 2011-2012 school year, as well as historically since 1972.

   Finally, while the Report identified a number of large city school districts that had “most improved” their suspension rates over time, it appeared that the “improvement” was due more to policy than practice.  Indeed, many of these districts did not comprehensively change the systemic practices of staff and administrators in their schools. . . they did not increase the number of advanced skill mental and behavioral health and intervention professionals. . . they did not engage in staff and community outreach programs to increase the understanding and sensitivity to individual student differences. . . and they did not embed their school-based approaches into community-wide social, economic, political, and grass-roots initiatives.
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A Chicago Public Schools Case Study

   Chicago provides a telling case study of what happens when policies designed to “change the numbers,” are not complemented by strategic, differentiated practices designed to “change the people.”

   In his February 25th Chicago Tribune article, Juan Perez Jr. reported that the Chicago Public School District’s changes, last year, to its Student Code of Conduct, its training in classroom management and use of restorative practices, and its $15 million investment on nearly five dozen vendors to work on school discipline issues with teachers and students has resulted in- - according to one teacher- - “lawlessness.”


   Among the biggest problems cited in the article were the following:

   * Teachers say they have not been given resources to work with the revised Student
Code of Conduct
   * Some schools do not have behavioral specialists on staff to intervene with students, nor resources to train teachers on discipline practices that address students’ underlying needs
   * Approaches have shifted too far such that some staff say there are no consequences, inconsistent enforcement, and/or little collaboration among in-school staff, administrators, and in-school staff from the outside vendors
   * District-provided training in areas like restorative practices and classroom management are not provided to entire schools
   * Resources- - like "restorative practices coaches" and behavioral health teams are allocated to schools based on (high discipline incident) behavioral data
   * Restorative practice coaches are only in the schools on a weekly basis- - regardless of need
   * The new conduct code places stronger limits on the use of suspensions and seeks to avoid consequences that would pull a student from classes or the school building
   * Prekindergarten through second-grade students can't receive an in-school or out-of-school suspension without approval of a district supervisor

   In the end, while the number of in-school and out-of-school suspensions in the District declined between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years, racial disparities remained.  But once again, the numbers decreased due to the policies that discouraged and/or controlled educators’ use of suspension, not due to increases in students with more appropriate behavior, and decreases in students presenting frequent or significant behavioral challenges.
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Reality Check

   To set the record straight, please understand that I believe that:

   * It is critically important to decrease the number of students being suspended from our schools nationwide, and to eliminate suspensions that are arbitrary, unnecessary, steeped in prejudice, and that do not match the intensity of the offense.  (We just need to do it the right way.)

   * Legitimate decreases in student suspensions and even discipline referrals to the principal’s office do not always result in simultaneous increases in positive school and classroom climates, student engagement, and prosocial student behavior.  (While we may successfully decrease the intensity of students’ challenging behavior- - such that they no longer need office referrals- - that does not mean that they are engaged and learning in their classrooms.)

   * Suspensions are administrative responses, and they rarely result in decreasing or eliminating students’ future inappropriate behavior, while simultaneously increasing their appropriate behavior.  (In other words, without interventions that change students’ behaviors, the student returns from the suspension with the same problem.)

   * Some teacher referrals to the principal’s office and some administrative suspensions are arbitrary, capricious, and mean-spirited on one end; or due to a lack of student sensitivity (e.g., to cultural or disability issues), knowledge, understanding, and skill on the other end.  (Thus, the root cause of “disproportionality” here is the adults. . . and the adults must be changed if the disproportionality is going to be changed.) 

   * Restorative Justice programs- - if implemented with appropriate integrity and intensity- - are useful programs. . . but only when they are matched to the students who will most benefit from those programs (based on analyses that confirm the underlying reasons for a student’s challenging behavior).

   * Ultimately, schools need to focus on teaching and reinforcing students’ interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional coping skills; while also providing the assessment and intervention services, supports, strategies, and programs that the most challenging students need to address their inappropriate behavior.  (Without school-wide prosocial skill instruction programs and approaches that motivate students to “make good choices,” we will never know how many challenging student behaviors we can prevent.)
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Understanding Students’ Inappropriate Behavior

   When students demonstrate social, emotional, or behavioral challenges, we need to work together to figure out why. Sometimes this can be done by an individual teacher. . . sometimes this is accomplished by a grade-level (or instructional) team working together. . . and sometimes this requires a school-level multidisciplinary early intervention team (like a Student Assistance Team, RtI Team, Student Services Team, or the equivalent).

   Critically, though, everyone in the school needs to be trained in the same problem-solving process that helps to collect and analyze the information and data that determine the underlying reasons for students’ (academic and) inappropriate behavior.  Once these underlying reasons are known, specific services, supports, strategies, and programs can be ascertained- - although this means that schools need to have professionals with extensive knowledge in classroom and other social, emotional, and behavioral interventions (so that problem analysis results are linked with the best problem solution approaches).
   Some of the primary reasons why students demonstrate social, emotional, or behavioral problems in the classroom include:

    * There are (known or undiagnosed) biological, physiological, biochemical, neurological, or other physically- or medically-related conditions or factors that are unknown, undiagnosed, untreated, or unaccounted for.

   * They do not have positive relationships with teachers and/or peers in the school, and/or the school or classroom climate is so negative (or negative for them) that it is toxic.

    * They are either academically frustrated (thus, they emotionally act out) or academically unsuccessful (thus, they are behaviorally motivated to escape further failure and frustration).

     * Their teachers do not have effective classroom management skills, and/or the teachers at their grade or instructional levels do not have consistent classroom management approaches.

     * They have not learned how to demonstrate and apply effective interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and/or emotional coping skills to specific (school-based or home-based) situations in their lives.

    * They do not have the skills or motivation to work with peers- - for example, in the cooperative or project-based learning groups that are more prevalent in today’s classrooms.

    * Meaningful incentives (to motivate appropriate behavior) or consequences (to discourage future inappropriate behavior) are not (consistently) present.

    * They are not held accountable for appropriate behavior by, for example, requiring them (a) to apologize for and correct the results of their inappropriate behavior; and (b) role play, practice, or demonstrate the appropriate behavior that they should have done originally.

     * Their behavior is due to past inconsistency-- across people, settings, situations, or other circumstances. For example, when teachers’ classroom management is inconsistent, some students will manipulate different situations to see how much they can "get away with."  Or, when peers reinforce inappropriate student behavior while the adults are reinforcing appropriate behavior, students will often behave inappropriately because they value their peers more than the adults in the school.

     * They are experiencing extenuating, traumatic, or crisis-related circumstances outside of school, and they need emotional support (sometimes including mental health) to cope with these situations and be more successful at school.

   Critically, if we do not know the problem(s), we will never identify and implement the solution(s).
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   To expand on some of the reasons underlying students’ challenging behavior, feel free to watch the webinar below that I presented a few years ago to a national audience:

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Changing Students’ Inappropriate Behavior

   Finally, as noted earlier, many student problems can be prevented by implementing a scientifically-based school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management system.  Based on our 30 years of evidence-based work in this area- - and implementation in thousands of schools in every state across the country, this system has the following interdependent components:

   *  Staff, Student, and Parent Relationships that establish Positive School and Classroom Climates

   *  Explicit Classroom and Common School Area Expectations supported by Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Skill/Self-Management Instruction (that are embedded in preschool through high school "Health, Mental Health, and Wellness" activities)

   *  School-wide and Classroom Behavioral Accountability systems that include Motivational Approaches reinforcing "Good Choice" behavior

   *  Consistency--in the classroom, across classrooms, and across staff, time, settings, and situations

   *  Applications of the above across all Settings in the school, and relative to the Peer Group interactions (specifically targeting teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, hazing, and physical aggression)
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   For more information about these components, please feel free to watch this short, ten-minute overview.

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   It is frustrating for everyone when concerted, well-intended efforts to address major school problems are unsuccessful.  Moreover, when these problems get worse despite efforts that actually invest the right amount of time, funds, personnel, and other resources, the frustration often morphs into hopelessness and despair, or blaming and anger. . . along with a more refined resistance to future efforts.

   Disproportionality. . . whether related to student discipline, placements into special education, access to effective teachers, equal educational opportunities, or civil rights. . . has existed throughout my professional career (and before).  I don’t profess to possess “the silver bullet.”  But I do know that our schools are not succeeding by simply changing policies, and throwing “one size fits all” programs at our practices.  More importantly, I also know that success can occur by integrating and focusing our policies, practices, personnel, and perspectives on both enhancing the skills and strengths of our students, staff, schools, and communities, and addressing the multi-faceted reasons underlying this important issue.
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   As always, I hope that some of the ideas above resonate with you. . . or, at least, provoke some deep thinking.  Feel free to contact me if you would like to reflect on these thoughts or discuss them in greater detail.  Have a GREAT week !!!